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 hows 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 Im 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, Ive 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 Â 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.