I am so pleased and excited to tell you that two of my poems, “The Way Queenie Smokes” and “Why I’m Scared to Let Go of the Papers” are feature in issue 18 of the Nine Arches Press magazine Under The Radar.
You can read “Queenie” above, I had help editing this in the Advanced Workshop at The Poetry School earlier this year. “The Papers” poem, funnily enough, is the poem I performed earlier in the year as a part of my Boring Conference talk on Paper Bags from Independent Bookshops.
I edit everything on computer, but the main focus of my writing practice is the notebook. Because I am quite a mobile writer, I rely on a notebook and pen as they work wherever I am. It’s just what works and feels right for me. If you only write on computer and have no wish to pick up a pen again, this one might not be for you.
If you’re known as a writer within your circle of family and friends, you’ll be given the gift of a notebook. Sometimes these will be lovely (sometimes TOO lovely!), sometimes they’ll be a bit weird. I wrestle daily with my own diva-ish attitude to most things in life (but WHY do I have to have a boring job?) the question of notebooks is one I’m always thinking about. Spending so much time in Paperchase is probably why. I have kept all my notebooks from the past couple of years, since my Masters. I don’t go through them as often as I should. Sometimes when I do I find one or two magical lines, or one or two whole poems that somehow were forgotten, that I can rehabilitate, rewriting it in a more now-ish voice and polish until I’m relatively happy with it. I use my notebooks for therapy as well as ideas of poetic genius (steady). Sometimes just writing down your raw feelings can help you stumble upon a new metaphor or an interesting turn of phrase. It’s good for your mental health too.
This week’s exercise is to buy yourself a notebook. Get something you like the look of. Pay attention to the feel of the paper, decide whether you prefer the paper plain, lined or squared (I usually have squared) don’t get anything too expensive or too fancy. Don’t just get one that has a particular reputation for being a WRITER’S notebook (it’ll be more expensive!) It needs to be hardy, this has to be your companion. I carry my notebook with me whenever I leave the house. I always think about Viggo Mortensen, apparently when he was playing Aragorn in Lord of the Rings, he carried his sword with him everywhere, it went back to his hotel with him, he took it out to restaurants. This was an important part of his preparing for the part. It’s important for me as a writer to be able to capture a swift sentence or phrase that rings in my head as soon as I hear it. If I don’t have my notebook with me, I’ll never remember it, hence my obsession with carrying it around.
Be method and be Aragorn, carry your new notebook with you at all times! Get into character as the writer that you are!
Free writing is what you’re already doing. It’s writing without self-editing, without self-judgement. It’s writing along on that cusp of conscious knowledge of what you’re about to say that feels like you’re writing what you mean and also discovering what you mean at the same time. Writing out your thoughts, externalising them, placing them on a page, is a useful thing for everyone. Free writing is oiling up the wheels of your creative mind, getting your body in tune with writing, it doesn’t matter what you write, but sometimes it might be something on your mind you hadn’t quite realised.
It’s important to remember that you don’t have to write anything good. At all. It can be garbage. It’s not about writing sentence after sentence of brilliance. Just writing is the important thing. Brave people stretch their novelistic muscles during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) each November by writing 50,000 words in 30 days, I have done it myself and I know it’s all about QUANTITY not QUALITY. Going back, fishing out the good bits and shaping them up into something decent is all the editing process, which is a different process to the writing process. We’re not editing today! Imagine if you were an artist (you may well be an artist already!) and you were painting a picture and you simultaneously worked on sketches for the final picture whilst painting different layers of detail whilst at the same time trying to find the right frame for the picture. It would be a mess and you wouldn’t enjoy it. Don’t do this with writing. When you’re free writing you are sketching. You are building up your ideas and discovering what you want to make and what you don’t want to make. The detail, the pallet choice, the layers, the finish, the varnish, and the frame, those all come much later.
This is a great exercise to do first if you have a plan to do some writing, or even editing on something else, just to get your brain in the creative mood. Take a kitchen timer or a timer on your phone and set it for ten minutes. In your usual journal, write continuously until the timer goes off (stamina of wrists and arms permitting, of course). Come back to it later or don’t. There’s no pressure at all. Write exactly what you like, don’t try to write SOMETHING, if you already have an idea for something, write that outside of this timed exercise. If you run out of things to write, write “I have run out of things to write” over and over. It doesn’t matter, fill up the page and don’t stop! This is about just sketching and doodling away with your words and ideas, you’ll be suprised by what things come out. Just make sure you keep writing for that period of time until the alarm goes off.
What a lovely weekend it was and how long ago it now seems! Open Garden Squares Weekend was 18th and 19th June. Through a scheme called Remixed Borders, a collaboration between London Parks and Gardens Trust and The Poetry School a handful of poets were collected and then scattered across gardens all over London to write poetry and engage with those who use the spaces every day and those visiting just for the weekend.
I was very lucky to be sent to Branch Hill Allotments in Hampstead. Look at my little profile on the website! I chose this garden as I live nearby in North London and Hampstead has always been a favourite place of mine. I was attracted to the allotments because of the history of the area, the site was once part of the gardens to an Edwardian mansion owned by John Spedan Lewis, founder of the John Lewis Partnership. As an ex John Lewis shopboy I was very happy to be part of the site’s history. John Constable lived nearby and painted a view across the allotments, John Keats wandered the area when it was still part of Hampstead Heath, Gerard Manley Hopkins lived down the road. Poets and painters were everywhere!
I made a handful of visits before the open weekend, these were arranged with Annie, my contact at the allotments. The site is on quite a funny corner, a little downhill from a handsome gatehouse which used to serve the manor house, there are black iron railings and only a the noticeboard inside the site lets on that this is the allotments. Annie would meet me at the gate and unlock it to let me in. We’d then stroll down the hill with the site unfolding to our right. The plots range in size and shape, they respond to the natural undulations of the land as the ground slopes down to the bottom lefthand corner, which was a pond in the past. I walked circuits of the allotments, thinking about the space, about what I saw, the huge crops of rhubarb, the bee hives. I especially loved seeing all the repurposed recycled, plastics and wood, reused on plots. Old kitchen sieves used to protect fruit from the foxes, fish netting to cover raspberries. All the compost bins full of homewaste with a whole little world of worms living in there. I chatted to those who were gardening (but was very careful not to disturb anybody and extra careful to not offer to shake anyone’s hand while they were wearing their gardening gloves, you only make that mistake once!) I loved the peace of the site and felt really priviledged to visit and write there.
Over the weekend I sat at a lovely table in the far corner of the site, meeting most visitors half way on their wander around, I chatted with lots of people about poetry and my time writing about the allotments. I gave out postcards which had poems on the back and print offs of the poems I had written about the allotments. Visitors were very kind and interested in my work and many were very happy with the postcards. I think I have around 6 left of the 50 I ordered.
The Remixed Borders project was such a wonderful opportunity for me and something I am so grateful to have been selected for. I’ll always be proud of my allotment residency as this was the first time I’ve undertaken a poet in residence scheme. I feel I have made connections with people at the allotments that will last and have also made friends with my fellow remixed borders poets.
This is one of my poems, Land
London is a marsh knitted together by rivers.
It is valleys with sharp hillsides and rocky outcrops.
Grey Old Island
–A poem in favour of remaing in the EU with thanks to Emma Thompson
Eating carrot cake on Thursday,
In the art gallery café. An Earl Grey Tea
over-milked until almost white.
Gillian told me about her brother visiting from Kenya,
how she’d left the family farm but he’d stayed,
his accent not filed down by the Englishness
of England, quite yet. He bought a new coat, unused
to the looseness of the wind and clouds
blowing across Europe. We talk
about the art we’d seen, these great abstract canvasses
close ups of the ground, all the rainy mud-colours of the earth
on this old island.
A blueberry muffin and mocha with Sacha
in the café, Saturday afternoon.
We take the corner seats upstairs
watching the town square out the tiny windows;
people stopping to look at the market stalls,
the fruit seller yelling about bananas every four minutes.
Passing children want to play with the cat toys
and jump on the soft dog beds all stacked up.
The fishmonger leans out the hatch in his van,
the ice surrounding the North Sea fish scattered
on the grey pavement, cold little clouds.
At the garden centre on Sunday.
A Victoria Sponge with Emma
topped with strawberries
from Spain. Glasses of thick-fizzy
Cloudy Lemonade. Sat on bolt-iron
garden furniture painted Misery Green.
Hidden from the wind and rain by a trellis
with ivy grown wicker-basket tight.
Sunday couples walk around looking
for a brown plastic garden hose contraption.
Pausing at the early camellias, giving a small smile
to the row perfect topiaries, scissored to
Alice in Wonderland playing card shapes.
“ a tiny little cloud-bolted, rainy corner of sort-of Europe, a cake-filled misery-laden grey old island” – Emma Thompson
When I was 16 it was the year 2000. We had email and chat rooms then but nothing close to what we now call social media. We had to phone up each other’s landlines and ask our friend’s parents if they were free. We had to chat in hallways or our parent’s bedrooms, as the phones had to be plugged in. It was hard for me when I came out, as I’ve written about at length before. I was really lucky to have a best friend called Chris at that time who was also coming to terms with his sexuality. When we were feeling brave after school we’d go to W.H. Smith and look at Gay Times and Attitude. At that time it was a huge deal to be that open about it. Boys from our school would see us and laugh and shout at us, the usual homophobic things they shouted at me. They got away with it at outside of school just as easily as at school.
Sometimes I was brave enough to buy my own copies. In the letters page of one edition (I think Dermot O’Leary was on the cover) there was a letter from a boy called Tom, 16. He was talking about how lonely he was and how hard it was to be gay at school. I felt the same, obviously. I was being bullied severely which caused my depression, I was a mess, my parents didn’t know what to do with me. But that little letter in the magazine made me feel a bit less alone. At this time you could only go on the internet during times when someone wasn’t using the phone line so I used to stay up late on Friday nights to go online. Feeling brave on Friday night, I wrote an email to the editor of Attitude magazine, which was sort of like this:
I saw the letter from Tom in your previous issue. I am the same age and feeling very isolated. Would it be possible to be put in contact with Tom?
After I sent it I didn’t really think about it much. When I bought the next edition of Attitude I was reading it on the train sat across from a friend called James. Suddenly this cold chill panic feeling set upon me when I saw MY LETTER and my name Ed,16 on the letters page. James didn’t really understand what I was talking about and when I went to pass him the magazine, he didn’t want to touch it (not that me being gay bothered him, of course, but he didn’t want to touch a gay lifestyle magazine, he was a great friend). I had not at all intended for them to PRINT that letter. I was lonely and isolated and then all of a sudden, everyone knew. The editor answered my letter by saying that they could not put me in touch with Tom but in a few magazine’s time they would be doing a special on isolated gay youth. It made me feel lonelier that I was in print, my little glimmer of hope, that I might be able to even chat to someone. I do feel the editor could have replied directly to the email, instead of printing it in the magazine for everyone to see. When I was 16 I was so desperate for a boyfriend, to even kiss a boy seemed so impossible. I didn’t know how I was going to make it happen. Sending that little email was another way I thought maybe it could. I felt really embarrassed that all the grown up gay men, the ones in London and Manchester who had boyfriends and flats together would see my sad little letter and pity me. It was horrible.
A few days after the magazine stuff had happened, I got an email from someone out of the blue called Tom. He said that the editor had passed on my address even though officially he’d said he couldn’t. Tom only wrote very short emails but I wrote long replies, going into my interests, my love for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Sheryl Crow, the film Cruel Intentions and Brian Molko from Placebo. How sometimes on Saturdays me and my friend Chris would go to London for the day to go shopping on Oxford Street and then walk around Soho. Tom only sent a few emails back and he didn’t tell me much about himself. But thatfirst moment of seeing his name in my inbox was amazing. Somehow he’d found me! I thought. I was so excited. I didn’t know what he looked like, who he was at all, but that didn’t matter because we had a connection because we were going through the same thing. After a week the emails stopped coming and then I was back feeling really down.
One evening after school I got a call from Chris. He’d called me to tell me that he was Tom. He’d set up a fake email account and started emailing me pretending to be him. At first it was such a weird revelation I sort of didn’t believe him and laughed. He’s jealous that I’ve found someone to chat to and maybe meet up with I thought. But when he said it all again, quoting some details from my replies about Sheryl Crow and Cruel Intentions, I started sweating against the phone at my ear. I was so upset and disappointed. I didn’t understand how or why someone would set up a fake email account with a different name. He said he was sorry. I was really upset and just wanted to know why he had done it in the first place. But Chris couldn’t really answer. He’d taken pity on me too. Looking back on it now, in a way it was a kind gesture that he had not properly thought through. He could see how lonely I was, and how desperate I was for a boy to notice me. And reading my keen replies he could sense I was starting to gear myself up to asking Tom to meet up and the consequences of his actions dawned on him. He was really sorry.
Chris and I were friends for a long time after this but we were, fundamentally, very different people. I was always more withdrawn and he was always the extrovert. Our friendship grew out of that secrecy we both had to keep as teenagers. Never telling our parents what was happening. Never answering questions about whether there were girls we liked.
I want to just say how glad I am that we have the technologies we have now, where we can meet each other through twitter, instagram, and dating sites. We can, if we like, hook up with people who happen to be nearby at the right time. It’s incredible. I’m not saying these opportunities are always positive, and don’t in themselves make people feel lonely in a different way but it’s better than the world I experienced.
These days there’s a whole television show about what is now called Catfishing, this is when people pose as someone else online and string along unsuspected lonely people. Catfishing is more than just a hotmail account, it’s fake accounts on Facebook full of pictures, with fake friends and family. Growing up in the year 2000, as I did, the loneliness and isolation I felt was very real and hard to live with, of course things aren’t perfect, but I’m glad things are at least different for teenagers now.