Tag Archives: poetry

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.

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Writers’ Groups? What’s the Point?

Writing essentials

I’ll cut to the chase here and tell you I attend four different writers’ groups. I also turn up at workshops, seminars, lectures, readings, any event with writing as the theme.

Some are fun, some aren’t, but I invariably learn something – or more pertinently, I write something I wouldn’t have done otherwise.

You might wonder how I have time, but two of the groups are fortnightly, and only one of the others meets weekly.

For me, this is all about mixing with ‘my people’, the ones who get it, the ones I don’t have to explain the writing compulsion to. I love to talk the talk and share writing-related news and information with people as keen as I am to write.

Here’s me looking a bit worried at response to my new poetry book during a reading at Books Upstairs, Dublin

I’ve recently dipped my toe into the business of getting my work critiqued by fellow writers’ group members.

Deep breath, thick skin activated, biro at the ready.

It wasn’t quite as painful as I expected – a 250-word piece of flash fiction I intend entering into a competition, deadline months away. Flash fiction? The week I had a poetry book published? Yes, I know.

I will often re-draft stories or poems dozens of times and this little tale had been tweaked, re-written, reimagined countless times before I sent it off for scrutiny. But in the latest version I have taken into consideration some (but not all) of my readers’ comments.

After all, the point of most writing is to share (with the exception of private, vitriolic journal entries of course) with other people, ideas, opinions and stories isn’t it? So it’s a useful exercise to get out an early draft to people who will (hopefully) give an honest opinion, let you know if you are going in the right direction, point out the bits that don’t work. Sometimes, the writer is just too close to their words to see mistakes, so Beta readers are invaluable.

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

I help to run two writing groups in County Mayo (Ireland) . But they are creative writing groups rather than writers’ groups. And there’s a whole can of semantic worms opened. Writing? Writers?

In my groups, I try to encourage new writers, people who may not have written anything more than a shopping list or message in a greetings card since they left school. Everyone has a story to tell, their own or someone else’s, and it is usually a revelation that almost anyone who can read can write. Good or bad, the results are subjective. And it often turns out amongst these beginners are some very talented scribes. Then we’ve got a writers’ group, not just a writing group.

Our meetings include prompts (pictures, words, phrases, objects) to start us off, with writing time to get our ideas down on paper, and we drink lots of tea and coffee, discuss publication opportunities and competition deadlines. Sometimes we will share these first drafts, read out loud, but there’s no obligation. My first attempts are usually rubbish, so I often pass.

If you are near the Mayo/Sligo/Roscommon border (we’re not far from Knock Airport) consider joining us. No booking required, just come if you can. Meetings are held fortnightly Monday morning 10.30am to 12.30pm – February 4th and 18th and March 4th . Or in the same week on Wednesday evenings, 7pm to 9pm. The venue is Charlestown Arts Centre above the town library in Barrack Street.

Or if you’d rather just read the book, here it is: ‘Soft Touch’

Trumpets (Own, and the Blowing Of)

screenshot (74)So here’s some cracking news for  what would otherwise be a miserable day (rain, and the first of my mother’s birthdays without her): ‘Soft Touch’ is now available to buy (well, to order before its proper publication date of February 1st). Ta da!

Soft Touch is my book of 20 poems chosen by the UK Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy in her Laureate’s Choice series for 2019.

I’m not hiding my light under a bushel here (although I might be found hiding under the table after the book is launched). Here are some of the endorsements it has garnered so far:

From Jane Clarke, poet: “Louise G. Cole captures the world around her with humour, tenderness and lyrical panache. Her poems fizz with vibrant detail. She uses language assuredly to create a resonant soundscape that is as moving as it is playful, as compassionate as it is exacting, as fresh as it is wise.” 

From Dermot Bolger, author, poet and playwright: “Sharp-edged and sharp-witted; richly humane and darkly humorous, Louise G. Cole’s voice does not just demand our attention but hijacks it with rich vignettes of human life, shot through with wry, cleared-sighted insights which weave the everyday into striking poems. These poems manage the deft feat of being both crystalline and subtle, remaining utterly true to the original experiences that shaped them, reshaping those experiences into deeply original poems which often make the reader catch their breath, seeing the familiar transposed in a fresh light.” 

From Rita Ann Higgins, poet: “Louise G Cole has a strong sense of place, an even stronger sense of mischief. She meanders into her poems quietly, but always finds some intricate detail to keep us hooked.  She is an accomplished observer of ordinary people and the little things they let slip. She weaves them into unforgettable poems.”

So, if you’d like to hear me read some of the poems from Soft Touch there are two upcoming events in Dublin, open invitation, free to attend (and there’s probably a complimentary glass of something included by way of encouragement):

Poetry Ireland event, January 17th 2019, 7pm

Books Upstairs event, January 27th 2019,  3pm

Meanwhile, Carol Ann Duffy’s tenure as Poet Laureate ends this year, and to mark the occasion there’s an anthology coming out in May, featuring me as one of 24 ‘promising’ poets she’s showcased over the past four years.

Phew! Now I think I need to go and practice lying down under tables…

In The Mood*

I’ve barely written a word for nearly three weeks, which must be something of a record for me. I’ve even stopped writing in my journal.

My mother, less than two months short of her 95th birthday,  has died, and while I wasn’t surprised by her passing, I was shocked (they’re different). Despite my best intentions, I discovered I wasn’t a bit prepared for the loss.

Me and my sister (her only children) were in agreement for some time that our widowed mother’s life as a bed-ridden cripple in a Care Home could not have given her much pleasure lately, despite being a deep well of poetic inspiration for me.

We were waiting. And waiting. But, true to form, my mother wasn’t going anywhere until she was good and ready. She’d even hinted once that she might hang on for a 100th birthday message from the Queen. Then suddenly, she was gone.

I’ve lived in Ireland for more than 15 years now and one of the things I think the Irish do well is death (they do loads of other good stuff, of course, but please cut me some slack here).

In Ireland, you are usually buried within a day or two of dying, instead of the two or three-week wait for a funeral in the UK. I was just starting to get used to the idea of finally being an orphan, thinking I’d come to terms with what had happened, when more than two weeks after the event (Black Friday indeed), we had to fly across the Irish Sea to face a harrowing funeral.

And then there were the boxes and boxes of photographs and letters that I’ve never, ever seen in my entire life, little family secrets revealed. Nothing too steamy, just pictures of my father as a goofy teenager (he was once in his teens?). And a letter revealing my sister was named for my father’s step-mother, whose first name I’d never heard before. A diary entry marking my parents’ engagement on my father’s 22nd birthday was another revelation.

My parents were of a generation who didn’t share personal information or feelings with their offspring. In contrast, my own children want to know every cough and splutter of my life (in a nice way) and will have no surprises hidden in diaries and celluloid when I slip this mortal coil (I don’t think they read this blog though – ha!).

For the record, Elsie Corti (Ginger to some of her friends and family), was a bit of a looker in her day, stylish and well-dressed, a woman ahead of her time with strong views on feminism and female capabilities. She taught me the skills that made me the domestic goddess I sometimes pretend to be (cooking, sewing, how to read a book instead of dusting, that kind of thing) – and she gave me the nerve to try my hand in a man’s world, many times.

But before I go all mushy, I have to remember she often said I had a face that only a mother could love – I got brains, my sister the looks. Hey ho.  

There’s still a sad poem or two to be wrung out of that thought.

* Meanwhile, here’s one of her favourite songs, ‘In the Mood’ by Glenn Miller 

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.

Not Quite Bananas

Just when my nerve starts to waver and I wonder what the hell I’m doing with my life, my muse knocks on the door and presents me with a cup of Earl Grey.

Or he sends a WhatsApp message with an old photo to encourage me out of hiding from under the table (again).

It doesn’t stop me wondering what it’s all about (oh boy, do I have a lot of poems about the meaning of life?) but it allows for satisfying recall of some of the thrills and spills of a life (so far) well lived. A life I’m especially grateful to be living right here, right now, with someone who gives a damn (OK, pass the sick bucket).

That lap cat look

So. Hot beverage, lap cat and poetry pamphlet proofs to hand. What else should I be doing on a sunny afternoon, other than proff reading? (Dammit, I hate proof reading.)

Here’s a Kinks song that comes to mind.  Nothing to do with proofs. You’re welcome.

How about baking an apple and cinnamon sponge pudding when I should be writing/reading/proof reading? Obviously, because I’m a such a soft touch (more of that later).

My recent journals are groaning with the weight of angst about what is the point of everything/anything?  But a quick flick through past personal journals shows me nothing’s new. I’ve been fretting about being a human bean for SO long.

It helps if I can turn some of my experiences into poems, of course. Then the satisfying bit is finding a connection with readers who get what I’ve written.

pub lou
No, it isn’t Photoshopped

When I sat down to write a poem about how my mother never listened to me, I had no idea the words would take me as far as they have. The poem, ‘Fur Coat and No Knickers’, has had several incarnations, but I think it still resonates with a lot of people who have relatives in care homes, particularly parents who once might have had notions of grandeur.

That poem is included in a new pamphlet due out in February 2019, when I will be published as one of Dame Carol Ann Duffy’s Laureate’s Choice poets (OMG that still sounds so amazing for me to write!). It’s the one I’m supposed to be proof reading right now.

I chose the title ‘Soft Touch’ because it sums up my view of myself, but it is also the title of a poem in the pamphlet in which I wax lyrical about the sensual feel of knitted cotton. The knicker gusset and tight-fit men’s boxers kind.

apple sponge
Heck, now I’m taking photos of my food I’ll have to turn to Instagram. And that’s (vegan) custard btw  Its too cold for ice cream

Last week I wrote about the trick to eating a banana in front of a man, a poem which isn’t included in the pamphlet. Just as well really. My muse gets first taste of most of my poems. He said that one definitely isn’t a soft touch…

Now, apple and cinnamon sponge pudding – served with custard or ice cream?

 

Rolling Stones

For the day that’s in it: Happy Halloween.

Musicians, artists, dancers, writers – there are goodly numbers of creative types who can’t get it together until they’ve a few drinks taken, or smoked something, or popped a few pills. Or at the very least, taken on  board a gallon of coffee to get the creative juices flowing.

A piece of purple amethyst is said to banish headaches and promote sleep. But it won’t write your novel for you, no matter how nicely you ask.

In my case its crystals.

There I’ve said it. I am a (sometimes frequent) user of healing crystals to enhance my creative prowess. I know, I know – Dumbo and his feather.

Actually, I’m not sure crystals do anything more than focus my mind on what’s already there – but I like to think they help with the transference of head-stuff onto paper. And at the very least, they’re attractive to look at, and nice to handle.

I rarely suffer from writer’s block – my problem is how to finish a project before I’m on to the next thing. Which is one of the reasons I like poetry and short stories so much – perfectly formed pieces of writing, complete in their brevity, and possible to finish in a limited time-frame.  I’ve come to this conclusion as I struggle to complete the novel or two I’ve been working on for way longer than is seemly. But that’s another story (ha!).

My own collection of crystals and gemstones was started back in the last millennium when I ran ‘Rock of Ages’ (way before Tom Cruise made a film of that title).

Amethyst for insomnia, jet to fend off  emotional vampires, amber for general protection, aventurine for good fortune, quartz for clear thinking, lapis lazuli for creativity, blue lace agate for communication, carnelian for grounding. Lots of different crystals, and just as many theories as to what each one has in the way of power.

No, I don’t know, either

It sounds a bit far-fetched, but apparently, when our forefathers found life too fast and furious, they took time out with clear quartz – rock crystal – finding it beneficial to clear the mind for meditation and prayer.  That was before the rhythmic pulsing of quartz was recognised and then harnessed to make quartz watches and clocks.

And who would think that a piece of purple rock could help beat insomnia? That would be amethyst, known for its relaxing qualities,  useful for soothing tension headaches.

I know scary, right?

Amber, 60 million-year-old fossilised pine tree resin, is one of the earliest materials used by man to carve sacred amulets to guard against illness and misfortune, still a favourite crystal for protection against ill health. Many asthma, rheumatism and arthritis sufferers swear by amber’s anti-inflammatory abilities. I confess that I haven’t experienced this effect of amber myself, although my late father (a card-carrying sceptic) wore a big chunk of polished amber on a cord around his neck in his battle with arthritis.

My favourite of all though is jet, another fossil, this time the 180 million-year-old remains of Jurassic monkey puzzle trees.  Jet was popularised by the Victorians, who made jewellery and artefacts from this light-weight, shiny black material, copying the Romans before them who carried jet to banish evil.  Many people nowadays have discovered how effective jet is at warding off psychic attack.  Emotional bullies and those exhausting people who can leave you drained after only a few minutes’ contact, no longer have effect if jet is carried for protection.

I’m rarely without a piece of jet on my person – most of my favourite pieces were collected on the beach near Whitby in North Yorkshire and painstakingly polished by hand.

Back in the day when polishing stones was something I did when I really should have been writing.