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Shot my career in the head
with a bullet made of lead.
Reflections on being a writer, being shortlisted to be Birmingham Poet Laureate and the creative process
Earlier this year, I took a major step in pursuing the life I want to live. I gave up proper, full time teaching in mainstream education to be a full time, freelance writer and workshop facilitator. This might sound stupid or whimsical but I have spent many years planning to do it and finally find myself living my own dream. So how’s it going? As we are approaching the new year, I thought it time to reflect.
I still cringe inside at the memory of the drama I caused when I coarsely told a respected artist what I thought of his self centred work. I guess I have a problem with apparent solipsism in art. Yet, here I am writing about my inner turmoil, expecting you to be reading this. Well, if you’re not then it doesn’t matter what I’m saying, but if you are, hello and I do apologise. If I were you, by now I’d be thinking, where is she going with this? I’d be hating how appallingly self-congratulating and self critiquing it is already -such sadomasochistic vanity. Well, herein lies the rub of a writer- ‘Listen to me. Listen to me. What the fuck have I got to say? What is meaningful about what I am doing?’ and we hate ourselves for it.
Of course, it can’t be true for everybody. Some people certainly seem to exude a self-assuredness about what they do and are prolific. If only we- the ambivalent could settle more fully on one side of the viciously swinging pendulum of self-belief, we could get on with it or just give up and go home. Oh the possibility! But L’appel du vide is strong and won’t let go. The call to self; to express freely, to submit to the creative wilderness that is pent up inside like a boiling oil. I am pulled in. I cannot resist and the more closely I look at its terrifying face, the stronger the urge to follow. And when I finally do submit, it flows like a beautiful release.
So Woopido! -I hear you exclaim- so, I’ve managed to sit down and immerse myself in the joy of writing. What change to the content, though? Following the shift to commit my career, I’ve been waiting for it to kick in with my writing, but no such change has happened. The change, instead, is in my self, my sanity, my wellbeing and this is affecting my relationships and my body. I feel better. I am better. Why? Because I am finally doing what I always wanted to do and that is not just being a writer. It is, specifically, doing what I want to do and giving the finger to any externally imposed sense of rightness or sensibility. Oh the privilege of it! What’s money, right? At least, this was what I felt at the peak, when the Romance of my choices was still strong and I was immersed in
You’ve pictured the scene, of course you have -someone is nearly naked, rolling around in money, piles and piles of money; literally rubbing handfuls of it against their glistening torso, ripping up armfuls, nuzzling it, pouring it over their face and laughing maniacally. So that was me with Birmingham Lit Fest. Okay, so I wasn’t nearly naked and it wasn’t money and I wasn’t literally rolling around and I guess I didn’t laugh maniacally (in public). But I did indulge somewhat. This is the first year I’ve been available enough to fully appreciate the breadth and quality of this outstanding festival. I went to at least one event every day over the ten day period and sometimes quite a few. I saw a broad and eclectic range of local and international talent in poets, writers, performers including Carol Ann Duffy, Germaine Greer, Will Self, George Monbiot, and loads more. I missed way too much, too; Lionel Shriver, Benjamin Zephaniah. I took my notebook to everything and felt like I was eighteen again, getting inspired and excited by everything. I spent a lot of money on tickets and books at most events but I felt truly richer.
Luckily for me, I was asked to chair an event with three novelists talking about their work. This meant I had to read all the books so I spent the best part of a week prior to the festival lounging around reading for ‘work’. In this I discovered the perfect job: reading all these books and then chatting with the authors directly about the content and process! I met three fascinating female novelists (Helen Cadbury, Selma Dabbagh and Emma Newman –all highly recommended ) and was part of a really stimulating discussion.
In August I was shortlisted to the final six for the role of Birmingham Poet Laureate. It was an interesting experience and in some ways validating but mostly I came away jaded by the process. That’s as much as I’ll say here but I will say that I came away determined to learn to be a better writer. Perhaps this was the point at which the euphoria of my new life began to wane. The Festival ended and I was left with myself and the black hole of my still unwritten novel.
When I was commissioned to write a long form poem for a performance at MAC Birmingham, I nearly unraveled. This was Lit Fuse, ‘a series of events showcasing new work devised by UK poets in collaboration with top directors and producers’ culminating in a show at the Hexagon. It was difficult, rewarding and surprising.
Getting commissioned to write a long form poem is a new experience and, for me, it was only natural that it developed as a narrative. I had grand ideas about what it should be about. It’s like when you write down titles for poems or books and think they are so perfect but you have no content. I wanted it to be an exploration of womanhood through the stripping of the politicised trappings- a kind of strip tease, one layer at a time. It came out instead as a retelling of the story of Adam and Eve where it is the snake who eats the apple (remember Ted Hughes’ Theology?) but it is Eve who eats the snake and Adam who eats Eve. It was, and is grotesque. When Bohdan Piasescki read early drafts he described it as cannibalistic sex metaphor and suggested I break up its density with some lightness. I tried- I really did, but instead of levity, out came a great hulking monster snatching trees and bashing wounds into the beautiful Eden setting of the poem. I couldn’t help it. I tried to lighten up but this monster kept roaring at me. I hate horror but I was writing it.
During the week leading up to the performance I was waking up with unfinished lines dripping like melting sanity icicles through my mind. It was that slow -drip drip: the slicing of veins, the gulping of fat, the chewing of flesh. Being a deserter of a strong Pentecostal background, I couldn’t help but feel like a terrible blasphemer despite logic. My mom had heard what I was writing about and was concerned. She had ‘words’ from God and read them to me over the phone. The devil’s work. Far from the comforting clarity of day, I wondered. But of course this is why it is what it became. It was drawing on my stuff. This was a real reminder of the adage, write what you know. It was a strip tease, but not like I intended. It was the process that was a stripping, like the uncarved block, Pu. I had to carve away the unnecessary stuff to discover what it was rather than trying to shape it into to something I wanted it to be.
Though I see myself as a writer rather than a performance poet, I have written pieces specifically for performance before. This was the first time I tried to learn a poem for performance, though. Actually, I failed. I kept my book with me in the end. I am confident I could have done it if I hadn’t only left myself a couple of days. It is twenty minutes long, after all. But the process of attempting to learn it was interesting. Several times I changed lines in the poem because they affected the rhythm of my flow in ways that made it more difficult to learn. This process added a new layer to the editing stage, which for me, was new.
I discovered that in some ways my repeated refrain, ‘ I’m a writer. I’m not a performer’ is a kind of security blanket. It gives me an excuse not to do so well. It’s like shifting responsibility onto the viewer, if you didn’t like it you’re not listening to the words enough, or something. Because of course, we’re all performers. Even as a teacher, I’m a performer. It’s just that some roles are more comfortable. Some of the rolling around the floor and pulling strange faces and slapping ourselves we did in rehearsals probably helped too. (Thanks Polly)
On the Wednesday before the Friday performance we four poets listened to each other’s work and shared our fears and so on. I had no expectations, I said. What could possibly be different after working with a director? My poem wasn’t going to change. In some ways of course, it didn’t, but working with the brilliant director, Polly Tisdall, showed me a way of holding my intention for each part that made it feel much more natural and manageable to express. Actually, during the rehearsal I really felt it was a better piece for it. The lighting during the show was brighter than the tech run, though, and I couldn’t see the audience, which, given that the Hexagon theatre is particularly intimate and the jungle setting of my poem, reminded me of a night I spent in a hammock in the Amazon once during in a lightening storm. Every now and then you get flashes of all that life out there but you can’t see well enough to see if it’s hostile.
Usually I am sick with nerves before a performance but for this I was only a healthy amount of nervous. This, for me, is one of the most valuable things I gained from the whole experience. I’m not quite sure which part of the process it came from, but I am sure I’ll be able to carry this improved confidence into future performances.
To help with my new career path I brought notebooks- lots of them. Well, one for poetry, one for workshops, one for the novel and so on. Unlike so many material distractions (if I buy this pair of trainers/ yoga mat/comfier saddle/sideboard then I’ll be better at running/doing yoga/cycling/tidying up), it actually worked- if being organised is the primary objective. But also, it allows for some looser writing. Before I called myself a writer I used to write in notebooks all the time, jotting observations, ideas and so on. With a notebook, you don’t have to produce something that’s finished and good so you are free to play. I’ve also met up with other writers to do some collaborative and personal writing though not nearly enough as this is one of the most helpful things I have done beyond the brilliant Room 204 programme.
In November I spent a substantial (and perhaps unnecessary) amount of time developing a pilot participatory project for young people who are excluded from mainstream education. It uses creative writing, photography and visual art to explore identity as connected to place. The project aims to foster a sense of empowerment, develop skills and create written, spoken and visual art to transform a public place. I’m quite excited about it. Following lots of discussions, meetings and phone calls with partners and advisors and a very involved application process I have just been granted some money by The Arts Council to make it happen. Watch this space for more info (expected February). Oh the possibility! And so the pendulum swings.
[nggallery id=12]NAWE (National Association of Writers in Education) are looking for articles on working with young people outside of the classroom for their next newsletter. I will be co-editing the special edition, so have a look through the call out below and get in touch.
It can seem that creativity is a dirty word these days, unless it involves accounting, and that the ability to memorise facts has overtaken the need to be innovative and inventive, but we know better than that. We know that writers are out there, delivering challenging and inspired activities behind enemy lines, as it were, right under the noses of the wrote learners and table memorisers. We want to hear from you inspired foot soldiers. We want to hear about your successes, your failures; about activities you’ve tried, after school clubs you’ve lead; workshops in the community; online development; activities in school that are outside the curriculum; in fact, anything that gives young people an insight into the incredible, diverse world that is writing outside of the curriculum. We want articles, top tips, case studies, interviews, writing activities, advice and so on and they can be as inventive as you want. So feel free to submit a photo essay, comic strip, flow chart, haiku or any of the more traditional journalistic forms. Contact us with article proposals now!
This newsletter will be edited by Garrie Fletcher and Elisabeth Charis both are teachers and writers that work with young people outside of school.
Article submissions should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org before 30th April. For anymore information please contact Elisabeth or Garrie via the NAWE email above.
Following our evacuation and consequent waiting around for 6 weeks living in a bender we built from nocturnally coppiced wood from the park we decided to go on a bit of a bike trip to work out what to do and where in the world we wanted to live.
here’s the blog link
Some pics of the bender
Being evacuated did not involve helicopter drops and lifts or rushing out of the house leaving a half eaten piece of toast and being held low by some rescuer with a walky-talky behind the boot of a car until the bullets needed changing. Being evacuated involved a full day’s notice to pack, drinks to say goodbye to friends, a quiet walk with my noisy wheelie suitcase at 6am past the park and down sunlit, shuttered streets to be met by a bus and a goodbye party from employers, a nostalgic drive through the city to the airport and a somewhat jovial flight. We were in high spirits generally and some of our party higher by drinking them. Mostly there was laughing and joking and taking about what we were all planning to do while we are waiting to hear what will happen.
Of course, we talked again of some of the awful things that have been happening; one girl’s friend was travelling on a bus which was stopped where he was beaten and called an animal for allegedly no reason. When he protested that he was not an animal, the broke his teeth and shaved his head, thus ‘marking’ him. He is now afraid to go out in public for fear of what authorities could do. A Syrian friend who had drinks with us the night before was up late on facebook asking about the gunfire she could hear. She only lives a few streets away from us. Someone else had a theory that the reason we have been evacuated now is because of the ‘sanctions’ Britain and the USA want to impose. Such things make me fearful for my friends.
At Heathrow we were met by London colleagues who gave us information sheets and paid for onward tickets. They told us they had been almost entirely preoccupied with evacuations since January: Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Japan, Bahrain. We are lucky. We weren’t traumatised like some of them.
We are staying in Cornwall for the time being, the time being spent waiting and wondering what will happen. Our employers hope we will be back very soon.
Tanks rolled on Douma, a suburb of Damascus, yesterday.
Though it was a holiday today, we had a meeting at the director’s house to (once again) discuss the possibility of evacuation and the possible plans for doing so. I and others were frustrated as it took valuable planning/holiday time and if we are not being evacuated then we are teaching tomorrow. Food was laid on, though, and it was a treat to see her house, which is a traditional Damascene house built around a central courtyard with fruit trees and water. We sat under a covered area of the courtyard in the shade on long cushioned benches where I could admire the afternoon sun warming the yellows, greens and oranges of stained glass from rooms around the courtyard. We have seen a few traditional houses before but none have been in such good condition. Usually, they are dilapidated and jaded somehow: a kind of nostalgic memory of the grand times before the world lost interest. Or something.
After the meeting, I cycled in to see my Arabic tutor in Bab Touma in the Old Town to catch up and tell her we might be leaving. She looked completely done in. Looking in to the dark bookshop where she works, I could tell before I even got off my bike how upset she was: it was in her whole body. Her shoulders were slumped and her face was paler than usual. Her family are in Douma, she told me. Their phones have been cut off. I already knew that they have not had food in the suburb for three weeks and that noone can go in or out of the suburb. I felt helpless.
Yesterday evening we had drinks we friends in the suburbs. We had the news on while we were there and talked about the disparity between the Syrian news and Aljazeera. It seems implausible that the government expects people to swallow the things they are feeding them, and even more implausible what people seem to be swallowing. When there was some ‘trouble’ at the university Generic Cialis last week, for example; the party channel showed the main news of the issues but then said it was all a lie as part of the conspiracy. They then showed supposedly live footage of the university campus looking peaceful. One never knows which media to believe but there had been phone calls from university students to my workplace warning us. We were advised not to leave the building (about 10 mins walk from the university) until things had settled down.
Friends from minority groups have surprised us by attending pro government marches and putting comments on facebook criticising the foreign media. It is true that the western media are distorting the reality to increase the sense of drama as we discovered when phonecalls from home expected us to be dodging bullets on a day to day basis. Like I said in my last post, though, the streets are quiet. A little too quiet, possibly.
There are things that we hear of, things which don’t affect us directly but which affect people we know. While we were at our friends’ house a friend of theirs, also present, had a phonecall to tell him he is now a wanted man for attending a demonstration last Friday and that his friends had been arrested. How do they know who he is? I wanted to know. Because they film every demonstration and then arrest someone and do what they do until they get names.
Even amongst our very limited social circle there is such disparity between people’s opinions. Some people are very cynical and frustrated about the regime while others (and these are all intelligent, thinking people) are quick to point out what Assad has done for this country, how much safer it feels here now. There was so much crime, I am told, and now people feel safe to walk the streets. It’s true, it does feel safe here generally. Even as a woman walking home alone in the small hours of the morning through the middle of the city I feel relatively safe. Glowered at no doubt, but safe.
Today we cycled to the park in the Centre of Damascus and got the usual reaction to me being on a bike. I am not exaggerating to say I may as well be Lady Godiva for the mixture of horror, shock, appreciation and confusion it seems to cause in people.
At the park we cut a large, sweet pomelo on the grass with my rusty penknife. W laughed at the way I kept repeating ‘pomelo’ in between mouthfuls because I liked the way the sound rolled in my mouth.
I lay back feeling too hot and too covered up in my oversized white blouse and jeans and watched the light breeze blown poplar leaves dance and dapple. D and W discussed the situation, the rumours etc. D drank his Turkish coffee bought from man peddling it from a flask and in the background children played football and speakers Generic Cialis from around the park blared nationalistic songs. Without enough Arabic, of course, we are immune to the music’s influence.
Like the music in the park today, the politics here wash over us and sing an impenetrable song which themes our days. We are not really affected. We can leave. We will most probably. Evacuation plans are being discussed as I type and outside and in, life goes on. It’s possible that the streets are quieter. It’s possible that people are looking at one another suspiciously. Who knows what people are feeling?
What to pack? Will we be coming back to this place we had hoped might be home for a while?
I should point out we are safe. I’m really just trying to let you know the disparity between what it feels like to be here and what is going on around us, even though we cannot feel it.
We argue over who does the washing up
I wonder if we’ll see the eggs in the nest on our balcony hatch into chicks. In between plans for what to cook for dinner we discuss the relative merits of planting the herbs we bought from the market. They will die if we leave them in this sun.
On the news; explosions, gunfire, dead-
More and more dead
Strawberries, truffles, new fruits in the market place, birds tinkling passed the edges of car horns hooting in their usual impatient way, men with horses and carts with petrol tanks or vegetables or gas, narghilla in cafes and parks, backgammon, shutters on the street closed in the morning, sugar cane juice, dinner parties, reading on the balcony, yoga on the roof in the mornings, marking to do, lessons to plan… the characters we meet
Fed up now and getting to want to go home. A girl at work was in tears today about the whole thing because she lives in an area of the city close to the place where demonstrations have been held. She heard gun fire echoing round the streets yesterday afternoon. Probably while I was writing the previous post. Dan fed up too. News depressing though we still see nothing and experience nothing.
The blood of strawberries thread across the cold marble
And drip onto the kitchen floor …
writing a poem called Arab Spring – will publish later
Sat in the lounge slightly hung over from our dinner party last night, cutting out a large Easter bunny I have stuck on card for my prepositions-pin-the-tail-on-the-bunny Easter special tomorrow for my junior group and listening to BBC Middle East Arab Spring discussion.
Demonstrations outside apparently. I say apparently because we haven’t seen or heard anything first hand (hamdulliah). Death toll today 25 according to BBC according to human rights groups here apparently. Had a call from boss today staying stay home / get stocked up etc.
‘will it be okay to walk to work tomorrow?’ I asked. Annoyed I am told don’t go out. Don’t want to go out but don’t like to be restricted.
Last night was the first dinner party I have ever attended where the topic of conversation was almost entirely dominated by politics.
Life has been great since Dan got back. We’ve really enjoyed being here together and making plans. It has been so much more enjoyable having a job that is not hellish and living in the city in an apartment which is perfect for us. Went out on the roof. Looked at the mountains surrounding the city. Looked at the sun setting over the tree tops of the nearby park and reflecting on the dark glass of the four season hotel nearby and Blue tower hotel. Looked at the birds swirling overhead. Looked at the ivy tumbling over the wooden shutters of the balconies opposite and the soft ripple of the Syrian flag. All so at odds from the news back here in the apartment. But the men hanging around on the street, people going into usually closed doorway, white, mirrored window cars zooming around the empty streets leave me wondering what it is we cannot see.
Our speakers have broken and it seemed pointless to buy anymore even though we were having a dinner party last night because we could get evacuated on Saturday. They have been saying that every week of course, ‘be prepared to be evacuated on Saturday’, ‘pack a grab bag’. Finally today we have done that but it has felt unnecessary here otherwise. It’s very frustrating to finally have life to return to some kind of normality and find that we are living in the threat of imminent drastic change. Last week we pulled up all the weeds from the plant pots and tidied up the balcony. We bought strawberries and herbs to plant. Should we bother? Should we bother to frame the photographs we’ve had printed to hang in the apartment. How long do people wait in such situations before deciding to carry on as if everything will always carry on?
Every week the bosses at my work place interrupt my daily life to have a meeting where they ‘update’ us and tell us to carry o with our daily life. On Wednesday the ambassador visited the meeting and spent over an hour commending us on not losing our heads. I kept thinking about the lunch that I was missing and how I had to teach in 20 minutes. ‘Just carry on as normal’ they say. We try but they keep calling meetings.