Sunday, 31 July 2011

'"Hope" is the thing with feathers'

'"Hope" is the thing with feathers'

'Hope' is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -

I've heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of Me.

- Emily Dickinson
I'm going to lay something out right now - I'm a bit frightened of poetry. I am afraid, always, that I won't understand it. So I only read it on my own and I don't usually talk about it in case I get out of my depth. I feel the same way about poetry as I do about wine - I like a good red, but I don't know which is which and I wouldn't know what to choose on a list.

However, if I am at home alone secretly reading poetry to myself, I love to feel it wash over me like warm water.  I recently purchased a very geeky book called The Poetry of Birds - and dipping into it, I found the above poem by Emily Dickinson. It's like a painting in my head - and I want to keep it there, so I have been reading it over and over again. Like beloved songs, I like to hammer in poems if I like them - nuggets to save for later, like the taste of a good meal. So more poems may appear - but not of my own making - I'd like to have a go, but would not make any efforts public!

To the matter in hand - my second chapbook is well on its way. I have finished a working draft, but it is sitting to 'proof' like a loaf of bread. I have been working on the images to go inside - no previews available yet - since everything is all still on old-school paper at present - but I might post something soon. 

N.B. I'm writing this as if someone is reading it, which makes me laugh a bit, since I'm pretty sure nobody is... But it's easier to write for an audience than just for myself, so I'll keep going.

Friday, 22 July 2011


I aim to write a short post this week because sitting in front of the laptop is uncomfortable. I have just emerged from a lovely hot bath (with make-shift jacuzzi jets) and will now probably undo all my good work, sitting here, typing this.

This week I have had a bad back. Badass Back. I have had a Bad Neck lots of times - it hurts a lot, but it doesn't stop you doing things. A Bad Back does. So, not one to waste physical pain, I have been thinking more about my next chapbook. I am interested in ageing. I am a person of only just thirty, but I am appalled by the cruelty of ageing - you learn how to do all kinds of things and then you do them for a bit and then you gradually can't do them anymore. I get cross about this as I see friends unable to do things they once could. But I am also consistently astonished by peoples' ability to cope and to get on with things.

This week I read a beautifully written book by Mal Peet called Life: an exploded diagram - a tantalising book in many ways and one that does not deny hope in extraordinary circumstances.

Finally I read Issue 28 of Ker Bloom!, a gorgeous letterpressed zine from Pittsburgh. Well worth a look, if only for the production. The zine has been running bi-monthly since 1996 - quite an achievement!

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Late nights and being grown-up

I have got a solar-powered spot light that I use on my desk for late-night writing sessions. These sessions are few and far between, but seem to work quite well - perhaps I like the idea that everyone else is asleep while I cook up stories and imagine possible covers. 

For my next chapbook a cover image came to mind long before a story. I've managed to sketch out the cover, but now I'm working on the story - not so easy! When I write I usually start with a remark, or a question and the rest builds from there. But recently I've been trying to focus a bit more and be more 'grown up' about structuring my stories. This being grown up is not as boring as it sounds - it's really about thinking of a story and then telling that story rather than trying to be clever and stumbling around in the dark. I found an old notebook recently from my time at UEA. Patricia Duncker told us that its 'grown up' to have a beginning, middle and end to our stories. The point is to finish - so it's important to think through the whole structure. 

I am also trying not to be lazy. I have never subscribed to the idea of having to wear my pajamas to write, or only sitting in one kind of chair or using one kind of pencil, or writing at a specific time of day. I write when I can think of something to write and when I have time. But I have been pushing myself a bit lately - "get to 2000 words tonight," or 3000 words or whatever, so that by 3500, I might have the bones of a story. I am a ruthless cutter - I cut out a lot of the story so only the vital bits are showing. Sometimes just the eyes, or only the heart.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

A few pictures and a story of a story...

Front cover of Good Condolences the chapbook I've already written and produced
...and printed.

These pictures are here because I want to provide a bit of context about chapbooks and what I've done so far.

Good Condolences is a story that I've known all my life and one that I have wanted to write for years. I tried it as a novel when I was at university in leafy Norwich, but it wouldn't stick and I wasn't convinced it was what I wanted to do with it. I had some good feedback on the start I made, but that wasn't enough to persuade me to finish it (well, start it). I don't like to waste words or time and really it was just an experiment. I would like to *emphasise* here that I don't like to waste words or time when I am writing fiction - when I am doing anything else, I frequently waste words and time. 

So four or five years later, this novel idea has become a single-story chapbook. It is thirty-two pages long and contains only the story (and some pictures). The pictures and design and editing took far longer than the writing - but that makes sense, since the story was sitting there waiting to be written. 

All at once several things happend to get me started in January. After looking around at several websites about writing, I can't remember exactly how, I stmbled upon the idea of the chapbook, and was particularly inspired by a blog post entitled The Art of the Chapbook. Around the same time, I went to London and at the V&A I saw an exhibition of Beatrix Potter's illustrations and first editions.

Beatrix Potter, ‘Privately printed edition (1901)’ © Frederick Warne & Co. 2006

Potter self-published The Tale of Peter Rabbit (image above) after writing the story for a 'real live child.' I have always said that I wouldn't self-publish anything, but I have also said that I want to be in creative control of what I produce. This idea then is a compromise but hopefully is not me 'giving in.' I'm not self-publishing something that publishers and agents have rejected, but producing something in a medium that is separate from the world of big agencies and ur...Waterstones. Perhaps I'm copping out, but I hope not. I hope I'm making something along the lines of an EP by a new band or a small print by a young visual artist. The book has been professionally edited and so I feel confident that I can share it with the world. I'd love for an agency or publisher to pick me up one day (I'm not completely anti-establishment!), but at the moment this is what I do - or part of what I do - and I am really enjoying it!

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

"Put it before them briefly..."

Put it before them briefly so they will read it, clearly so they will appreciate it, picturesquely so they will remember it, and above all accurately so they will be guided by its light. - Joseph Pulitzer

I have got this quotation pinned up beside my desk in an attempt to pay attention to it. Perhaps not the best way to start a blog - quite a tall order, but tall orders are good for us, I think. G.K. Chesterton said he liked getting into hot water because he thought it kept him clean. Enough of the quotations. I don't much like hot water, that's why I'm sitting at my desk and not on a street corner - but I like his sentiment. 

Last month, I applied for some arts funding from a local body, and after much outlining, chatting with friends and writings of 'supporting statements,' I didn't get short-listed. One of the things I said I would do as part of my 'project' would be to start a blog, describing my progress. My project was going to be a series of chapbooks* concerned with the theme of 'light' (yeah, I thought I'd keep it nice and vague - perhaps to my detriment). So I will aim to work on this series (sans new Mac, printer or camera, which perhaps I didn't 'need' anyway), and share some of my workings with you. I do a bit of sketching and sewing, which may come into things here and there. 

So a 'chapbook' is about brevity - it's a small pamphlet of not much more than forty pages with amongst other things, a pretty cover. 

In my chapbooks then,  and my theme of 'light,' I'd like to be clear**, picturesque, and accurate. The proof will be in the pudding.

* Chapbook: an ancient form of publishing that is enjoying a renaissance 500 years on with a surge of interest in modern chapbooks.

The 16th century merriments that became the chapman's stock in trade were historically cheap, crudely made and illustrated using recycled woodcuts.

Today's chapbooks, which are enjoying a revival along with independent regional publishing, bear little resemblance to the roughly produced books of the past. They are objects of beauty in their own right, with emphasis on original design as well as being a showcase for original writing. Pamphlet-sized but glossy, and more book than leaflet, they are highly covetable, which partly explains their appeal."   Posted on 4th March 2011 by Helen Carter on The Guardian's The Northerner Blog. 

** Clarity is a particular weak point of mine.