Wednesday 23 December 2020

Nigel Pantling, "It's Not Personal"

Nigel Pantling has been a soldier, a civil servant and an investment banker, and for the last twenty years has advised chief executives of companies on strategy. He has written about these worlds in two pamphlets, Belfast Finds Log (Shoestring Press, 2014) and Hip Hind Hook (Smith|Doorstop, 2018), which relate the dangers and human frailties he saw as a soldier in Northern Ireland and during the Cold War, and in his first full collection Kingdom Power Glory (Smith|Doorstop, 2016) which lifts the lid on the secret worlds of Whitehall and the City. 

About It’s Not Personal 

It’s Not Personal (Smith|Doorstop, 2020) evokes a life, from childhood in the fifties, through the challenges and eccentricities of the workplace, to the unpredictability of family, love, and death. These are poems concerned with truth; but just as importantly, with what it means to tell a story. You can watch Nigel reading from It's Not Personal at the on-line launch, hosted by Martha Sprackland, in November 2020 here. You can read three poems from the collection below.

From It's Not Personal 

On the Way Home from Choir Practice

He was older and bigger than me, and his punch
was as glorious and unexpected as
when we trebles hit the top A in the Kyrie.
I’d done nothing to deserve that.
Oh my outrage as I named him to the police.
I wanted him tracked down, humiliated, punished.

The doubts took years. Had I provoked him?
Maybe I’d exaggerated my shock and the pain?
His mother, when she came round to apologise,
blaming it all on her being so ill with the cancer:
how had she deserved that? And how had he?
I’d pressed charges: where was the mercy in that?

Something My Girlfriend Said to Me

Do you remember, when you were a boy,
how the chimes of an ice-cream van
could bring on a rush of excitement,
how you struggled with the choice –
a strawberry mivvi, a rocket lolly,
or a 99 with hundreds and thousands –
how different each felt
in your mouth,
on your tongue,
how wonderful
it was to know that
if you chose a mivvi today,
you could still have a 99 tomorrow?
Well that’s how it is with me and men.


Final Interview for MI6


There are five of them this time, seated in a row.
No introductions and no name cards.
They give you a hard time but you keep going.

Then the young woman, surely the most junior
but doing most of the talking, tells you to imagine
you’re in a hostile country, and to choose one of them
to be the local you have to entrap, suborn, entice,
seduce or otherwise persuade to come over.

She gives that look you’ve got wrong before, so you choose
the blimp beside her, and greeting him like an old friend,
commiserate on his child’s poor health, and then pretend
you’ve had him photographed as he takes your gift of cash.

When you arrive home, the offer letter is on the doormat.


Slippery bastard chose me. 'Hello Mikhail, it’s good to see you,
let’s have a beer, and I’m so sorry to hear the baby’s poorly.'
Chummy as you like. Perfectly believable. Of course I just blinked.
Took some time to get to the point, but at last he offered me cash,
for 'medical treatment,' one diplomat to another, no questions asked.
When he mentioned the camera, it could have been me thirty years ago.
I was for saying no. But none of the others had been in the field.

Wednesday 16 December 2020

Kevan Manwaring, "Black Box"

Dr Kevan Manwaring is a lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Winchester. He is an alumnus of the University of Leicester, where he completed his PhD in Creative Writing under the supervision of Dr Harry Whitehead in 2018. He also taught Creative Writing at the university. His novel and now audio drama Black Box was written alongside his doctoral research, inspired by interdisciplinary conversations on campus and visits to the National Space Centre. It won the national 'One Giant Write' science fiction manuscript competition in 2016. 

About Black Box

Prize-winning eco-science fiction novel Black Box, by Kevan Manwaring, has been adapted into a gripping audio drama by Alternative Stories and Fake Realities as part of their CliFi season. 

Inspired by the cutting edge research into artificial intelligence and space exploration at the University of Leicester (where Kevan completed his PhD and won various writing commissions) Black Box was written as a ‘side novel’ during his part-time research degree – a break from researching Scottish folklore for his main project. He entered the national Literature Works ‘One Giant Write’ science fiction novel manuscript competition ‘on a whim’ and won it. 

Kevan wrote a draft of Black Box while on writing retreat in a remote croft on the coast of Wester Ross, Western Highlands. To research the settings of the novel he visited the National Space Centre, and the biomes of the Eden Project in Cornwall. 

Adapting his own opening chapters for the pilot episodes, Kevan has worked closely with sound engineer and Alternative Stories director, Chris Gregory, who recruited and recorded professional British and American actors, and created the soundtrack and soundscape. 

Launched as part of the Alternative Stories CliFi season, Kevan was interviewed about his project in a special feature alongside fellow writer Anna Orridge, whose short story, ‘Backdrop,’ was also adapted. You can listen to the interview here

Black Box is a dark eco-science fiction thriller about the consequences of exploration of the Solar System and beyond. A desperate mission to find water – and the possibility of life – on one of Jupiter’s moons is set against a backdrop of a dying Earth. Kevan says: 'In Black Box, I wanted to look into the abyss, but I also wanted to offer a glimmer of hope. I offer not another bleak dystopian vision of the future, nor a wildly optimistic utopia, but what Atwood terms an "Ustopia" - for one man's heaven is another man's hell.'

You can listen to all three pilot episodes of Black Box here.

Tuesday 15 December 2020

Anna Vaught, "Saving Lucia"

Anna Vaught is a novelist, poet, essayist, short fiction writer, editor and a secondary English teacher, tutor and mentor, mental health advocate and mum of 3. 2020 saw the publication of Anna's third novel, Saving Lucia (Bluemoose), which has just been longlisted for the Barbellion Prize, and a first short story collection, Famished (Influx). Anglo-Welsh, she splits her time between Wiltshire, Wales, and the Southern US. She is currently finishing a new novel and working on some non-fiction, while a further novel and second short story collection are on the desk. Anna’s essays, reviews, articles, and features have been featured widely online and in print. She is represented by Kate Johnson of Mackenzie Wolf Literary Agents, in New York City. Her website is here. She is also on Twitter @BookwormVaught and Instagram @bookwormvaught6. 

Anna Vaught will be giving a guest talk and masterclass as part of the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester on Wednesday 3 March 2021. If you are interested in attending, please email Jonathan Taylor (jt265[at]le[dot]ac[dot]uk). 

About Saving Lucia

How would it be if four lunatics went on a tremendous adventure, reshaping their pasts and futures as they went, including killing Mussolini? What if one of those people were a fascinating, forgotten aristocratic assassin and the others a fellow life co-patient, James Joyce's daughter Lucia, another the first psychoanalysis patient, known to history simply as 'Anna O,' and finally 19th Century Paris's Queen of the Hysterics, Blanche Wittmann? That would be extraordinary, wouldn't it? How would it all be possible? Because, as the assassin Lady Violet Gibson would tell you, those who are confined have the very best imaginations.

Saving Lucia explores the last days of the life of the Hon Violet Gibson, would-be assassin of Mussolini. In St Andrew’s Hospital, her lifetime co-patient is Lucia Joyce, daughter of James Joyce, and Lucia helps Violet to organise one last and extraordinary adventure, together with two other well-known psychiatric patients, and in the process secure freedom and understanding for herself. Saving Lucia is historical fiction with strong fantastical elements woven in - the journey undertaken is itself a work of prodigious fantasy - plus refrains and rhythms from the works of James Joyce, particularly Finnegans Wake. It is a testimony to the role of the imagination in mental illness and in confinement and its stimulus was the long and difficult experience of its author, who saw these women not as cases, but as heroines. 

Below, you can read the opening page of the novel. 

From Saving Lucia

Violet Albina Gibson, the Honourable, was behind bars, wearing an immaculate black crepe dress, clasping her finest manners and a lovely, lacquered fountain pen, for letters to Churchill and others. She was a criminal because, in April 1926, in Rome, she shot Mussolini. And she was insane with it; an assassin with devotions, prayers and visions. Not a steady-handed murderer, but one that broke apart most untidily and could not be trusted. In prison, in Rome, she threw a chamber pot at her guard and a flower press at a crackbrain; for an Honourable lady, such rude things she said. Then there were the screams and intransigence: strange mystical tantrums. And in 1927, when they put her in the mental hospital, in England, behind those necessary bars, through which you saw a fine vista—oh and the borders were lovely this year! —she would never do a jigsaw or embroidery, when instructed for her own good. Only towards the end of her life would she do one thing they suggested: she agreed to stand outside with the birds and encourage them to feed from her hands. 

Other than that, a hopeless obdurate virago, a strange dotty old girl, mad with religion. And a danger. Or a nuisance. Or both.

Monday 14 December 2020

Congratulations to Jane Simmons!

Congratulations to Jane Simmons, poet and PhD student in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester, whose poem "Nativity" has just won the Seren Christmas Poetry Competition 2020. You can read her poem on Seren's blog here

Jane Simmons is a former teacher/lecturer who completed an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Lincoln. She is now a Creative Writing PhD student at the University of Leicester, where her research project is The Poetics and Politics of Motherhood, a practice-led exploration of motherhood through an environmental and political lens, engaging with the theme creatively and as it is treated in contemporary women’s poetry. As a reviewer for The Blue Nib literary magazine, Jane has built a significant publication history of writing about contemporary women’s poetry. A small selection of her own poems appeared in the March 2019 edition of the magazine. Her collection From Darkness into Light – poems inspired by the Book of Kells – was published in 2018. Further poems appeared in the anthology The View from the Steep. She has work forthcoming in Ink, Sweat & Tears. Jane regularly reads and performs her work in the Lincoln area. She won the G. S. Fraser Prize for Poetry in both 2019 and 2020; you can read her winning poems here and here. She recently gave a guest lecture and reading at Leicester University, on the first-year undergraduate module "Introduction to Writing Creatively."

Thursday 10 December 2020

Anne Caldwell, "Alice and the North"

Dr Anne Caldwell is a freelance writer and education specialist, based in West Yorkshire. She has worked for the National Association of Writers in Education, the British Council as their Literature Programme Manager, and currently lectures for the Open University. Her specialism is prose poetry and she is a keen walker. Her poetry has appeared in a range of anthologies and magazines in the UK and internationally. These include The Rialto, Writing Women, The North, Poetry Wales and Stride. Anne has published three collections including Painting the Spiral Staircase (Cinnamon Press, 2016). In 2019, she was co-editor of The Valley Press Anthology of Prose Poetry, alongside Oz Hardwick. Some of her prose poems were runners up in The Rialto Pamphlet Competition in 2017. Anne has just been awarded a PhD in Creative Writing, focusing on prose poetry, at the University of Bolton. Her website is here.

About Alice and the North 
Alice and the North (Valley Press 2020) is a sequence of prose poems that form a love-song to the North, its post-industrial landscapes, wild uplands, obsession with weather, seasonal change and awkwardness. Like Lewis Carroll's Alice before her, the lead character shifts and changes as her journey across the North continues; she is at turns playful, sexy, rebellious and adventurous, carving a new identity for the region as she goes. From herring quines to the hidden corners of Manchester, from Lytham St Anne’s to the canals of Congleton, readers are invited to grow up with Alice as she finds her voice – straddling the territory between prose and poetry, exploring the down to earth cadences of everyday speech and the richness of the North’s many idioms and dialects. Alice even finds time to gently tease the 'titans' of Northern poetry, Ted Hughes and Simon Armitage, whose voices have long shaped the poetry-reading public's idea of the North. Now, however, they must step aside and make room for Alice. 

Copies of Alice and the North are available from here. Below, you can read three prose poems from the collection. 

Wednesday 9 December 2020

Bert Flitcroft, "Just Asking"

Bert Flitcroft was born and brought up in Lancashire but now lives in the Midlands. He has three collections of poetry published: Singing Puccini at the Kitchen Sink and Thought-Apples, and recently Just Asking. His work has appeared in a number of national magazines and anthologies. He is a prize-winning poet, has been Poet in Residence at the Southwell Poetry Festival and has performed at a number of national festivals including The Edinburgh International Book Festival. He was Staffordshire Poet Laureate 2015–17 and curated the on-line Staffordshire Poetry Collection. He has worked as resident poet with one of our ‘National Treasures,’ The Wedgwood Collection at the V&A; as resident poet with the prestigious R.I.B.A. exhibition ‘The Road Less Travelled’; and recently as part of the University of Keel project ‘Labelling the Museum.’ His website is here

About Just Asking
As the title suggests, this is a collection in which most of the poems set out to pose a question, either directly or by implication, for the reader to consider in the light of their own experience and feelings. These questions may be about specific situations, or more generally about our own sub-conscious, unspoken attitudes to people, places, events and so on. Bert's poetic voice is clearly evident in the collection but with this in mind there are also poems written in the voices of a range of characters.

From Just Asking

To my friends: just asking…

Some days I have nothing new to say
of consequence. No opinion about the rain,
no forthright view about the latest scandal
or the smell of crusty bread.
But should something startling happen:
an angel threaten to descend
or a best friend lost, or an old love found,
these are surely pearls worth diving for.

We have swum in the same sea for years,
so why, when the water feels deep
do you lapse into awkward silence,
close up your hearts and seal them
as tight as oyster shells?
Why the need to keep a cancer secret,
or treat a shortage of sex as a shame
as if it were a sweet grape
withered to an unspeakable raisin?
Or admit to the heat of unrequited love
that has scorched the heart of all of us?
As if these things were a moral failing
or a sign of weakness.

My life is full of conversations I do not have.
This is a matter of soul.
Some days I might as well be up a mountain
shouting into the ice-blue emptiness,
or in the supermarket buying beer and oranges.

It’s grim...

Have you been, to The North?
They say, up there they have an ugly angel,
a rust-coloured, furnace-welded crucifix
with the wingspan of a stadium,
a man of steel holding up the sky
around the fraying edges of the city.

Like Lear, it seems, he is a challenge
to every storm and bolt of lightning.
And he casts a shadow on our conscience,
yours and mine, they say, like a sin.

Sad, really. I’ve seen a photograph.
They say it is deliberately a shocking sight.
Like celebrating grime, I’d say.
You cannot see love in his eyes,
he has no eyes.
Beauty? It can’t be in his smile,
he has no mouth to smile.

No fallen angel this, they say.
Stand at his feet, they say. Look up
at his thick-ribbed pride,
his barrel chest, the bulging calves,
that muscle out their industrial presence,
as if he is watching over them. As if
he is bolted into the bedrock of their being.
It’s how they stand up in the world,

Thursday 3 December 2020

Chris Westoby, "The Fear Talking"

Chris Westoby is the author of The Fear Talking, published December 2020 by Barbican Press. He is Programme Director of the MA Creative Writing (Online) at the University of Hull. Outside of facing down his own fears in his debut book, Chris is interested in the untold stories of others. He leads a Writing from Life module and has conducted narrative research exploring gendered barriers in higher education and how social media impacts the aftermath of a death by suicide. He believes in the power stories have to improve understanding, practice and the wellbeing of the storyteller.

About The Fear Talking
By Chris Westoby

I'm a thirty-year-old who has had a severe anxiety disorder for my whole life. Growing up, I kept my illness secret, even from my parents. Partly through the shame of the things I thought, the things I was afraid of, my hidden behaviours, but also because it was the 00s and nobody talked about these things. I had no idea what was up with me. That secrecy, confusion, isolation, avoidance is what The Fear Talking is all about.

I know there are others out there who feel as isolated as I did, so I wrote the book I always wish someone had handed me. This is not a book about getting better, or turning my experiences into something positive. There are enough success stories out there. Not everyone does recover, and I want that position to be better represented. The Fear Talking is written in the confused and terrified voice of the sixteen-year-old me who didn't know what the hell was wrong with him. It's a book about breaking through that wall, someone learning about anxiety from the very bottom, learning to communicate it. It's about the damage it causes to others, but also the moments of real connection that come from finally understanding each other.

Below, you can read an excerpt from the memoir. 

From The Fear Talking

‘What’s the matter?’ Mum says. Her voice restrains itself. It’s almost formal. She puts two slices of bread in the toaster and pushes the lever down. Tops her cup of tea up with a little kettle water. Every movement faster and louder than usual. 

‘I couldn’t get on the bus.’ 


‘I didn’t feel well. Still don’t.’ 

‘I’ll have to take you in, then.’ She turns over a jumper that’s drying on the radiator. The toast pops up. I keep my head down until she takes her breakfast through to the lounge, then I tread quietly upstairs. 

For ten minutes I hope she might forget me and just go to work. 

‘Let’s go, then,’ she calls from downstairs. I hear her plate and mug go in the dishwasher. The hollow clop of her shoes marching down the hall. The jingle of her keys. My mind is made up. She can’t seriously think I’ll come down. 

‘Go without me,’ I say from the top of the stairs. ‘I can’t go.’ 

Down by the front door, she looks up at me. Her voice coiled and sharp, her eyes shining. ‘Get your bag and let’s go. I’m going to be late at this rate.’ 

‘Then just go.’ 

She looks around, her head doing little shakes. 

‘I can’t, Mum.’ 

The snap I was waiting for. Her voice raises, ‘Then get changed and get your arse down to that workshop, and at least make a living for yourself if you’re throwing your education away.’ 

I don’t reply. 

Her voice cracks into a high-pitched shout, through pressed teeth. ‘I’m wild!’ 

What an odd thing to say. 

She comes storming up the stairs. I move out the way. 

‘I’ve got one son who avoids me and another who’s deceptive.’ 

She does something in her room and then runs past me, down the stairs again. She’s still shouting as she picks her bag up and makes for the door, but it’s the slight muffle through gritted teeth and the wobble in her voice I hear more than the words. The door bangs in its frame. Through the obscured glass, her Fiesta’s little engine revs like a boy racer’s car as it reverses out the drive. 

I sit on the stairs for a long time.  

What do I do? What the fuck do I do? 

Tuesday 1 December 2020

Peter Thabit Jones, "Garden of Clouds: New and Selected Poems"

The author of fourteen books, several of which have been reprinted and four published in Romania, Peter Thabit Jones's work has been translated into over twenty languages. He is the recipient of the Eric Gregory Award for Poetry (The Society of Authors, London), The Society of Authors Award, The Royal Literary Fund Award, and an Arts Council of Wales Award. He was awarded the Ted Slade Award for Service to Poetry in 2016 by The Poetry Kit (UK), the Shabdaguchha Poetry Award 2017 (USA), and the 2017 Homer: European Medal for Art and Poetry.  

In March 2008 Peter’s American publisher, Stanley H. Barkan, organised a six-week poetry reading tour of America for Peter and Dylan Thomas’s daughter, Aeronwy. 

Peter's chamber opera libretto, Ermesinde’s Long Walk, for Luxembourg composer Albena Petrovic, premiered at the Philarmonie Luxembourg in 2017 and at the National Opera House Stara Zagora in 2018. His full opera libretto for her, with Svetla Georgieva, Love and Jealousy, premiered at the National Opera House Stara Zagora in Bulgaria in 2018, at the Théâtre National Du Luxembourg in 2019 and at the International Festival “Sofia Music Week,” Bulgaria, in September 2020. 

Peter has resided at Big Sur, California, as writer-in-residence for two months each summer from 2010 to 2019.  His drama The Fire in the Wood, about Big Sur sculptor Edmund Kara, premiered at the Actors Studio of Newburyport in Massachusetts in 2017 and at the Henry Miller Library and the Carl Cherry Center in California in 2018. 

You can find further information about his work here.     

About Garden of Clouds: New and Selected Poems
Published by Cross-Cultural Communications, New York, Garden of Clouds: New and Selected Poems comprises some poems published in previous books by Peter Thabit Jones and a larger group of new poems. There are poems about a boy raised by his maternal grandparents in a working-class home below Kilvey Hill in Eastside Swansea, Wales; poems about dementia, autism, widowhood, and favourite poets (such as Rilke, Edward Thomas, R. S. Thomas, and Dylan Thomas); poems about a Welsh town busker, an Elvis Lookalikes competition, participating in an outside poetry reading in Belgrade, Serbia, and trips to the Mojave Desert and the Grand Canyon; poems about human conflict, such as the poems ‘War Child’ and ‘Soliloquy of a Leader,’ and personal loss and grief for the poet’s second son, Mathew. There is also a selection of poems about Big Sur, California, where the poet has resided annually for two months as a writer-in-residence since 2010. 

The Big Sur poems are new poems, not included in his previous book, Poems From A Cabin on Big Sur (also from Cross-Cultural Communications). The poems engage with the rugged and wild beauty of the landscape that spreads all around the isolated writer’s cabin. The cabin is a fifteen-minute walk from the Pacific Ocean, which can be viewed in all its glory from the main cabin window. The lament of the ocean is the ever-present aural backdrop to the chosen solitude.

Below, you can read three poems from Garden of Clouds: New and Selected Poems.


Stones take to each other naturally,
Like a family of sleeping creatures,

The large ones accommodate little ones,
To create a colony of hardness;

They rest in centuries of stark stillness;
They are elephant-heavy to lush grass.

Their colours employ the afternoon sun;
They are as warm as loaves from an oven.

Each one embodies its personal death;
They are cobbled memories of the sea;

They are the solid language of labour:
Each one weathered to a perfect image.

They rest, innocent of their history,
Like a grey display of featureless skulls.

They have tasted our sweat and absorbed our blood.
They rise and fall, symbols of man’s conscience.

Their persistence has sculptured their silence;
They hint that their souls haunt other planets.

They are magnets for our primitive thoughts;
They are the armour of truths beyond us.

They shape our built fears of an afterlife,
They could tempt us into acts of worship.

War Child

He is already a hundred years old.                               
Barely nine, his eyes slowly drown                                 

In his sudden tears as his brown fingers                       
Tremble below the wound of his lips.                              

His thoughts walk through the dust memories             
Of destruction, the bomb-collapsed                                  

Building where his parents, three brothers                    
And his two sisters were killed.                                           
He is alone in the world.  Alone with his fears.               
His small bag of experiences is already full.

The Western reporter and cameraman                              
Will go back to their hotel and stitch together                  

Yet another war story, while the boy will wander            
His devastated city, where horror                                         

Is piled on horror, where planes scratch                                
The night sky and break up the morning.                              

He shakes his dark head, he is lost for words,                       
As his eyes stare through the flesh                                            

Of so-called civilization                                                                 
To the foul and bloodied bones of reality.         

Edward Thomas in Swansea

You brought your troubles
With you: the almost-empty
Pockets of your poverty;
The tarnished wedding-ring

Of your worn love for Helen;
The mind’s shelves of commissioned
Books far too many.
It’s said you looked down

At Lower Swansea Valley,
The hell-smouldering
Far sprawl of tall
Choking factories.

Was your mind a mess,
A trench of dark thoughts
That stretched away
From reality.

The jigsaw of Europe
Was breaking apart,
Young men queuing
To wear the King’s khaki.

You returned to England,
To your nest of worries‒
The sparks of the war
Burning possibilities‒

Then Robert Frost coaxed
Your mind towards poetry. 

Monday 30 November 2020

Black Lives Matter: Poems for a New World

By Ambrose Musiyiwa 

In May 2020, George Floyd’s murder was captured on mobile phone video by active bystanders. The video showed a white policeman pressing his knee against Floyd's neck and keeping it there for close to nine minutes until Floyd died. The murder triggered months of mass protests in the United States and around the world.

The protests have been taking place in the midst of a global pandemic that, in Europe and the United States, is also disproportionately killing people from Black, Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds.

An entry on Wikipedia highlights how "Black Lives Matter," "Hands up, don't shoot," "Am I a threat?," "I can't breathe," "White silence is violence," "No justice, no peace," "Is my son next?," "Get your knee off my neck," and more, have become rallying calls against the killing of Black people by the police and against racism, racialised inequality, discrimination, violence and oppression.

Around the world people are demanding justice and change.

Black Lives Matter: Poems for a New World (CivicLeicester, 2020) came out of a June 2020 call for poems and short prose on the theme, "Black Lives Matter."

We were looking for submissions exploring any of the images, issues, histories, lives, demands and outcomes that are being highlighted by Black Lives Matter and current and past protests. We were interested in submissions from writers of all ages and backgrounds, based anywhere in the world.

We received close to 500 poems from over 300 writers around the world. Black Lives Matter: Poems for a New World presents 107 of these poems from 95 writers. The poems were selected for how they respond to the theme and for how they speak to others in the anthology.

I commend the poems to you and hope they will also encourage you to keep insisting that Black Lives Matter in your village, town, region and country and in the places from which you get your livelihood, goods and services.

Writers featured in the anthology include (in alphabetical order): Peter A, ‘Funmi Adewole, Mayo Agard-Olubo, Sandra A. Agard, Jim Aitken, Nick Allen, Rosalie Alston, Judith Amanthis, Adrienne Asher, Mellow Baku, Sharon Cherry Ballard, Panya Banjoko, Tanisha Barrett, Lesley Benzie, Conor Blessing, Tim Bombdog, Richard Byrt, Julian Colton, Mark Connors, John Cooper, Tracy Davidson, Giles Dawnay, Martins Deep, Sara Eliot, Blake Everitt, Ravelle-Sadé Fairman, Mike Farren, Paul Francis, Michelle Fuller, Harry Gallagher, Mike Gallagher, Moira Garland, Kathy Gee, Rachel Glass, Lind Grant-Oyeye, Prabhu S. Guptara, Nusrat Haider, Jean Hall, Roger Hare, Samantha Harper-Robins, Deborah Harvey, Jem Henderson, Kevin Higgins, Arun Jeetoo, Hamdi Khalifa, Kihwa-Endale, Tom Krause, Laurie Kuntz, D.L. Lang, Charles Lauder Jnr, Adriano Timoteo Llosa, Rob Lowe, Paul Lyalls, Margaret Mair, Isabella Mead, Lester G. Medina, Maureen Mguni, Jenny Mitchell, Leanne Moden, Cheryl Moskowitz, Hubert Moore, Loraine Masiya Mponela, Ambrose Musiyiwa, Linda Nabasa, Russell Nichols, Chad Norman, Selina Nwulu, Sarah Nymanhall, Revd Dr Catherine Okoronkwo, Nasrin Parvaz, Tracey Pearson, Alexandros Plasatis, steve pottinger, Judith Prest, Marilyn Ricci, Bethany Rivers, Jenny Robb, Caroline Rooney, Eddie Saint-Jean, Chrys Salt, Barbara Saunders, Joel Scarfe, Lily Silverman, Suzan Spence, Gerda Stevenson, Laila Sumpton, Samir Sweida-Metwally, George Symonds, Deborah Tyler-Bennett, Cheryl Vallely, PR Walker, Patricia Welles, Michele Witthaus, and Kathy Zwick.

Black Lives Matter: Poems for a New World is available here

About the author
Ambrose Musiyiwa coordinates Journeys in Translation, an international, volunteer-driven initiative that is translating Over Land, Over Sea: Poems for those Seeking Refuge (Five Leaves Publications, 2015) into other languages. Books he has edited include Bollocks to Brexit: an Anthology of Poems and Short Fiction (CivicLeicester, 2019) and Leicester 2084 AD: New Poems about The City (CivicLeicester, 2018). He is the author of The Gospel According to Bobba

You can read an interview with Ambrose on Everybody's Reviewing here

Thursday 26 November 2020

"Remembering, Forgetting and Storytelling"

By Jonathan Taylor

Either I forget immediately or I never forget.

 – Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

As part of the MA in Creative Writing, we run a thematised semi-module on 'Memory and Writing.' On this course, we explore ideas about memory in theory and practice, and do so 'trans-generically,' through creative non-fiction - especially memoir - fiction, poetry and scriptwriting. We look at subjects including psychology, the uncanny, neurology, textual memory and narrative memory. What follows are some thoughts on memory, remembering and forgetting, in relation to storytelling and writing, which this semi-module has thrown up over the last few years. 

In all sorts of ways, storytelling is bound up with memory, with the process of remembering and forgetting. It exists, I think, in the overlap between remembering and forgetting, in an unstable equilibrium between their two powerful gravitational pulls. It needs both, and if one of them becomes too strong, too dominant, it can distort and ultimately destroy narrative. All writers play with the two forces, mixing them to different degrees; but both are necessary for stories to function. 

The Importance of Remembering
Clearly, remembering is essential for stories to exist. Without it, we couldn’t piece together narratives, connect up the events. We couldn’t tell stories about others or even ourselves. Nor could we read or understand stories: reading is an act of memory. In reading, we establish narrative connections in our memories, with what has gone before in the text we are reading, and with previous texts we have read in the past. This is what reception theorist Wolfgang Iser says about the relationship between reading and remembering: ‘Whatever we have read sinks into our memory and is foreshortened. It may later be evoked again and set against a different background with the result that the reader is enabled to develop hitherto unforeseeable connections. The memory evoked, however, can never reassume its original shape, for this would mean that memory and perception were identical, which is manifestly not so. The new background brings to light new aspects of what we had committed to memory; conversely these, in turn, shed their light on the new background, thus arousing more complex anticipations. Thus, the reader, in establishing these interrelations between past, present and future, actually causes the text to reveal its potential multiplicity of connections’ (‘The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach’).

If reading stories depends on establishing connections, and hence on remembering what has already happened, memory itself is made up of stories: your memory is a patchwork of remembered stories. As Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French suggest, ‘the moments that altered your life you remember at length and in detail; your memory tells you your story, and it is a great natural storyteller’ (Writing Fiction).

The symbiotic relationship of remembering with storytelling comes into focus when it malfunctions. In her wonderful memoir about her mother’s Alzheimer’s, Remind Me Who I Am, Again?, Linda Grant says that ‘Memory, I have come to understand, is everything, it’s life itself.’ Without it, narrative and even a sense of self disintegrate. In Micaela Maftei’s words: ‘When the ability to self-narrate is … stripped away, there is no longer any way to reliably construct a version of reality; unsurprisingly, this has catastrophic effects not only on the diagnosed individual, but also on those close to them’ (The Fiction of Autobiography). 

This is because our very sense of selfhood depends on narrative, on the stories we remember and tell to others. As neurologist Oliver Sacks writes: ‘We have, each of us, a life-story, an inner narrative – whose continuity, whose sense, is our lives. It might be said that each of us constructs and lives a “narrative,” and that this narrative is us, our identities .... Each of us is a biography, a story. Each of us is a singular narrative, which is constructed, continually, unconsciously, by, through, and in us ... To be ourselves we must have ourselves – possess, if need be re-possess, our life-stories. We must “recollect” ourselves ... A man needs such a narrative, a continuous inner narrative, to maintain his identity, his self’ (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat). 

Disease, loss, and, for that matter, politics can distort, undermine or even wipe out a person’s remembered ‘inner narrative’ and hence sense of self. As novelist Milan Kundera puts it, ‘The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting’ (The Book of Laughter and Forgetting). 

Stories Remember
In part, then, stories are memory warehouses – storage rooms for remembering. According to Jeanette Winterson, in fact, this is how storytelling and poetry originated: ‘There was a time,’ she writes, ‘when record-keeping wasn’t an act of administration; it was an art form. The earliest poems were there to commemorate, to remember, across generations, whether a victory in battle, or the life of the tribe. The Odyssey, Beowulf are poems, yes, but with a practical function. If you can’t write it down how will you pass it on? You remember. You recite’ (Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?). In stories, the past is remembered and, indeed, returns, as Grant remarks: ‘So the past goes on re-arranging itself in surprising new ways. It is not over, never finished with. It keeps returning. Always to surprise us’ (Remind Me Who I Am, Again?). 

This means that storytelling, like remembering, is a kind of ‘mental time travel,’ which, in a sense, reanimates and often reshapes the past: ‘It may seem surprising,’ writes James Gleick, ‘that it took psychologists sixty more years to define this phenomenon and give it the name “mental time travel,” but they done that now. A neuroscientist in Canada, Endel Tulving, coined the term for what he called “episodic memory” in the 1970s and 1980s. “Remembering, for the rememberer, is mental time travel,” he wrote, “ a sort of reliving of something that happened in the past”’ (Time Travel: A History). 

One book which famously lives up to the idea of storytelling as a store-house or repository for memories – and which enacts ‘mental time travel’ in its very structure – is Joe Brainard’s strange memoir I Remember. The memoir is a list of fragmentary memories, all preceded with the phrase ‘I remember …’ – memories of childhood, school days, sexual experiences, food, drink, celebrities, relationships, brands, adverts, commonplace sayings, hundreds of fragments and details: ‘I remember the only time I ever saw my mother cry. I was eating apricot pie … I remember how good a glass of water can taste after a dish of ice cream … I remember one of the first things I remember. An icebox. (As opposed to a refrigerator) … I remember white margarine in a plastic bag. And a little package of orange powder. You put the orange powder in the bag with the margarine and you squeezed it all around until the margarine became yellow.’

Remembering Everything
Brainard’s I Remember could be seen as an attempt to exhaust the past – to list everything, write down every single memory, however trivial; and, although that impression is only an illusion (it was, after all, very heavily edited), it’s certainly a challenge to the way we hierarchize some memories (and, indeed, histories) over others. Perhaps remembering margarine and glasses of water after ice cream are just as important to an individual as world-changing political events, or (closer to home) apparently life-changing decisions. Sometimes, for whatever reason, we remember trivia, idiosyncratic details, pop culture, TV adverts, brands, at least as much as we remember apparent trauma. Who’s to say what’s really important?

Jorge Luis Borges’s remarkable short story, ‘Funes, His Memory,’ is all about someone who remembers everything – every single tiny detail in his life – and hence can’t separate or hierarchize or even classify things. His memory becomes a ‘garbage heap’ (as he calls it), and his story a garbled tragedy: ‘His perception and memory were perfect … He knew the forms of the clouds in the southern sky on the morning of April 30, 1882, and he could compare them in his memory with the veins in the marbled binding of a book he had seen only once … Nor were those memories simple – every visual image was linked to muscular sensations, thermal sensations, and so on. He was able to reconstruct every dream, every daydream he had ever had. Two or three times he had reconstructed an entire day; … each reconstruction had itself taken an entire day … Funes … was … incapable of general, platonic ideas. Not only was it difficult for him to see that the generic symbol “dog” took in all the dissimilar individuals of all shapes and sizes, it irritated him that the “dog” of three-fourteen in the afternoon, seen in profile, should be indicated by the same noun as the dog of three-fifteen, seen frontally … In the teeming world of Ireneo Funes there was nothing but particulars’ (‘Funes, His Memory’). For the philosopher Jacques Derrida, such limitless memory is a terrible impossibility: ‘Memory is finite by nature … A limitless memory would … be not memory but infinite self-presence’ (Dissemination). 

Joe Brainard, Pansies

The Importance of Forgetting
‘Infinite self-presence’ does not make an effective (life-)story – and it’s clear, from Borges’s description of Ireneo Funes, that his life is all disconnected images, moments, details, which he finds impossible to link up into a narrative. This is because narrative also depends on omission as well as inclusion – if you try and include everything, storytelling becomes impossible. In other words, storytelling depends on both remembering and forgetting: without the former, there can be no connection between then and now; without the latter, experience is ‘infinite self-presence,’ chaos, a garbage heap. Linda Grant writes that ‘Because we do not remember everything that has ever happened to us, because we must filter and select and edit the experiences and information that enter our senses every day and transform it into a meaningful narrative, our lives are essentially stories’ (Remind Me Who I Am, Again?). Similarly, the author Romesh Gunesekera says that: ‘In the sense that writing is to retrieve the past and stop the passing of time, all writing is about loss. It’s not nostalgia, in the sense of yearning to bring back the past, but recognition of the erosion of things as you live.’ 

Writing depends on memory and loss, presence and erosion, remembering and forgetting. As Derrida puts it, ‘if one has resorted to … writing … it is … because living memory is finite, it already has holes in it before writing every comes to leave its traces … The opposition between mneme and hypomnesis would thus preside over the meaning of writing.’ According to Derrida, this is the ‘doubling’ effect of writing: it depends both on absence and presence, memory and substitute memory, remembering and the ‘holes’ of forgetting (Dissemination).

Remembering, Forgetting and Structure
This doubleness of writing, this tension between remembering and forgetting, often informs the very structure of how stories are told. Memoirs, for example, entirely depend on the selection of material – on decisions about which memories and events to include, which to leave out (or ‘forget’), what stories to tell, what gaps should be left between episodes. As Derek Neale and Sara Haslam suggest, ‘a memoir ... can ... be structured in a fragmentary, snapshot fashion .... The silence between episodes is intriguing ... – who could, or would want to, write everything down?’ (Life Writing). Presumably, only Borges's Funes could or would want to. 

Likewise, novelist and memoirist Jeanette Winterson claims that: ‘For a writer, what you leave out says as much as those things you include. What lies beyond the margin of the text? The photographer frames the shot; writers frame their world … When we tell a story we exercise control, but in such a way as to leave a gap, an opening … Perhaps we hope that the silences will be heard by someone else, and the story can continue, can be retold. When we write we offer the silence as much as the story’ (Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?). Even Brainard’s I Remember, which seems so exhaustive in its list-like narrative style, depends for its aesthetic effect on both what is said and the gaps (the white spaces on the page) between memories and moments. 

Short stories, too, depend as much on omission as on inclusion: by definition, a short story can only handle a small amount of material, so vast (infinite?) swathes of back story and future story have to be left out. Virginia Woolf (to give one example among many) often plays with this aspect of short fiction. In her famous story ‘The Mark on the Wall,’ even the narrator is torn between remembering and forgetting, struggling to tell a coherent story because of her fallible memory: ‘In order to fix a date, it is necessary to remember what one saw … I can’t remember a thing. Everything’s moving, falling, slipping, vanishing’ (‘The Mark on the Wall’). 

Storytelling here is in danger of being torn apart by the conflicting gravitational pulls of forgetting and desperately trying to remember. It’s always an unstable relationship, a volatile compound, that authors experiment with, in a thousand different ways. It can be destructive, explosive. It can pull stories into weird, fascinating, unexpected shapes. 

It can even be a story in itself – as it is in Linda Grant’s memoir, which moves between the daughter’s urge to remember and recover the past, and the mother’s forgetting illness. In miniature form, it’s also the story encapsulated in John Clare’s famous late poem, ‘I Am.’ The poem moves tragically from recalling lost friends (who have themselves forgotten the narrator) towards a realm of total forgetfulness, oblivion, at the end: 

I Am
I am—yet what I am none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost:
I am the self-consumer of my woes—
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes
And yet I am, and live—like vapours tossed

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Where there is neither sense of life or joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
Even the dearest that I loved the best
Are strange—nay, rather, stranger than the rest.
Into the living sea of waking dreams,

I long for scenes where man hath never trod
A place where woman never smiled or wept
There to abide with my Creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie
The grass below—above the vaulted sky.

 - John Clare

Works Cited
Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot (1953)
Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Funes, His Memory’ (1942)
Joe Brainard, I Remember (1975)
Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft (2006)
John Clare, ‘I Am’ (1848)
Jacques Derrida, Dissemination (1969)
James Gleick, Time Travel: A History (2016)
Linda Grant, Remind Me Who I Am Again? (1998)
Romesh Gunesekera, ‘Lost Horizons’  (2007)
Wolfgang Iser, ‘The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach’ (New Literary History, 1972)
Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1978)
Micaela Maftei, The Fiction of Autobiography (2013)
Derek Neale and Sara Haslam, Life Writing (2009)
Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1985)
Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2012)
Virginia Woolf, ‘The Mark on the Wall’ (1917)

Jonathan Taylor is director of the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. His website is here

Tuesday 24 November 2020

Kerry Hadley-Pryce, "Gamble"


Kerry Hadley-Pryce was born in the Black Country. She worked nights in a Wolverhampton petrol station before becoming a secondary school teacher. She wrote her first novel, The Black Country, whilst studying for an MA in Creative Writing at the Manchester Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University, for which she gained a distinction and was awarded the Michael Schmidt Prize for Outstanding Achievement 2013–14. Gamble, her second novel, was shortlisted for the Encore Second Novel Award, 2019. Both novels were published by Salt Publishing. She is currently a PhD candidate at Manchester Metropolitan University, researching Psychogeography and Black Country Writing, and is working on her third novel, God's Country.

Kerry's website is here. You can read an earlier interview with Kerry Hadley-Pryce on Everybody's Reviewing here

About Gamble

Greg Gamble: he’s a teacher, he works hard, he’s a husband, a father. He’s a good man, or tries to be. But even a good man can face a crisis. Even a good man can face temptation. Even a good man can find himself faced with difficult choices.

Greg Gamble: he thinks he can keep his head in the game. He thinks he’s trying to be good. Until he realises everyone is flawed.

And for Gamble, trying to be good just isn’t enough.

From Gamble

To him, she’d taste of vanilla, or cucumber, or raw chives, perhaps. She looked like that kind of girl, he thought. 

He’ll say he’d watched her arrive, and how the van was parked across his driveway. It would have bothered him before, anyone parking across the driveway; that day though, he’d stood at his living room window (the ‘lounge’, his wife, Carolyn, called it. He hates that word: lounge) and he’d watched her, this girl, through the gap in the mesh of net curtain, and he’d wondered what she’d taste like. He felt a little bit sick – sometimes standing for too long did that to him – but he was trying to ignore all that, and anyway, it was Monday, and he’ll say he always felt the cloy of nerves at the start of another week of teaching. So, watching the girl was taking his mind off all that. Words like ‘willowy’, ‘asymmetrical’ and ‘seemly’ mixed with ‘uncareful’, ‘wild’ and ‘brash’ in his mind as he watched her. Her hair, he noticed, was almost blonde – some bits of it were rapeseedy, he decided – and she seemed to have a habit of pushing stray strands behind her ear. She did that a lot, he noticed. He counted. Fourteen times. There seemed a regularity to her way of doing it, and it reminded him of poetry, the way she kept repeating it. She was carrying cardboard boxes into the building opposite and, as he stood watching her, he came to realise he’d never really noticed it, that building. It was a building, and it was just there opposite his 1950s semi. Looking back now, he questions all that. But he was noticing the girl, just then. She wore, he thought, very red lipstick, and that made her look odd, or the lips look odd, like she had a permanent pout, or had been punched, and he found he was forming an opinion about that. He watched her enter the building and then reappear, and became aware that, with every appearance of her, he’d suck in his stomach, straighten his back. Becoming aware of it made him feel somehow ineligible and a little despairing. He’ll say he realised then, he needed someone to talk to. Just to talk.

Saturday 21 November 2020

"The Call of the Wild" in Children's Literature

By Millie Henson

I hope everyone reading this is doing well, even if the universe isn’t making it easy right now.

I’m Millie Henson, I’m 22, and I’ve recently finished my MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. I returned home to Derbyshire to finish my dissertation, where long walks through overgrown paths and forests inspired some of the themes of nature in my story. I grew up learning the names of wild plants, like elderberries, sloes, and dandelions (and I was assured I could make wine out of all of them). I wanted to bring some of that natural childish wonder to my final project.

My dissertation was a 12,000-word middle-grade children’s story written from the perspective of a feral child in Suomi (Finland). The protagonist, Aria, was raised in the forest by a bear who became her adoptive mother. The key themes in this story include kindness and tolerance, which are developed through Aria’s connections with other children in the village as they try to help her understand the human world. Common tropes in children’s literature such as ‘The Call of the Wild’ are usually used to deter children from going into the forest, or other supposedly dangerous places, alone. I wanted to subvert these expectations by showing how, from Aria’s perspective, human society was a place of greed and malicious intent, whilst the forest was a peaceful place she wished to return to. She imagined the forest was calling to her: ‘Come home, where the trees will hum and sing for you.’

When I researched pre-existing children’s literature about children being raised by animals, I realised that most books involve a fantasy element. Either the children are transformed into animals or have some magical way to communicate with them, often caused by an enchantment. This is most likely for practical reasons; it’s harder to hold onto a child’s attention without the main characters being able to speak to each other. However, I wanted to maintain a sense of (magical) realism, which meant I had to research real-life cases of children living with animals.

What I found was the complex history of feral children, who were raised by wild animals or lived alone in the wilderness away from civilisation. Michael Newton’s A History of Feral Children (2011) discusses case studies of children being raised by bears, wolves, dogs, tigers, and monkeys. These animals took mercy on children who would otherwise have died of exposure or starvation, which shows how a maternal instinct can transcend species. For centuries scientists have explored the effects this has on children, who often never regain full powers of communication. Unfortunately, many academics dehumanise feral children by questioning their intelligence, emotional capacity, and whether they can be considered ‘human.’ Since I was basing some of Aria’s speech and behaviours on these real-life cases of feral children, I wanted to ensure that I did so respectfully, by showing the world from her perspective, including her instinctive thoughts and feelings, instead of making her a curiosity

Writing a children’s book allowed me to incorporate one of my other passions, art. I created watercolour illustrations, such as Aria and her bear mother surrounded by Finnish plants and leaves, and I added a border to make the pages more colourful. Children’s illustrations can be important not only for engaging the young reader, but also for helping to create a tone for the story. This is why I based my paintings on artwork I had seen alongside traditional fairy tales.


I found writing my dissertation very rewarding, as I could see the story come together from concept to completion. Don’t get me wrong, the idea of writing 15,000 words in three months was daunting at the beginning. I came up with a loose plan for the plot, which involved Aria’s relationship with her bear mother, missing rubies, and poisoned flowers, but I began writing before I knew exactly what was going to happen. I didn’t look out for grammar or repetition, or whether everything sounded how I imagined it. During my Master's, I’ve learned that it’s far easier to go back and edit a messy paragraph than to stare at a blank page hoping the perfect sentence will come to you. 

I’m always wary about giving writing advice as different processes will suit different people. What works for me is structuring my writing around lots of achievable deadlines. Writing 500 words seems much easier than writing 15,000. Then once you finish a task you can tick it off, and that rush of serotonin will motivate you to start the next one. If you feel like you’ve been staring at the screen for too long, your eyes have gone blurry, and your words don’t make any sense, it may be time to take a break. Never underestimate the power of a cup of tea. A few minutes away from your desk will clear your head and allow you to come back to your work in the best possible mindset.

Below, you can read an excerpt from my Dissertation.

Prologue from Mari and the Red Mist

Have you ever been alone in the forest, and felt the wind whisper in your ear? That’s Otso, the bear spirit, the invisible king of the forest. He lives in Finland, Suomi. The land of wild winters and sweltering summers.

No one knows exactly how Otso came to rule over the forests. Legends say that he was nursed by the goddess of the woodlands in a cradle of gold, suspended between the branches of a fir tree.

In the runes he has many names, maybe you’ve heard them? Golden Light-Foot, Honey-Paw of the Mountains.

Some believe that when a child disappears into the woods, Otso transforms them into a bear cub so they may survive. When they grow into a mighty bear the forest becomes their kingdom too. They have no boundaries; the only limit is how fast they can run or how high they can climb. Until, eventually, they forget they were ever human.

Of course, this is only a fairy-tale.