Tuesday 29 September 2020

"Girls Who Play Sports"

By Dani Devenney

Hi! I’m Dani Devenney, I’m 23, and I’ve recently finished my MA in Modern Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. I’m originally from Jersey, in the Channel Islands, and I attained a 2:1 in BA English at the University of Plymouth in 2018.

My dissertation was a Creative Writing project examining the representation of girls who play sports in children’s literature. I focused on women who play sport in literature for my undergraduate dissertation, but for Master’s level I chose to focus on children’s books as I felt there was a gap in the market. There are so few children's stories about young girls in sport. 

I wrote two stories, each dealing with hurdles young girls might face within team sports. One story focused on a girl who can’t play in the football final she’s always dreamed of because of an illness, and the other confronts bullying on a school netball team. Finally, the critical reflection examined the representation of girls in comparable primary texts, and I enjoyed having the opportunity to delve into contemporary children’s literature over the summer.

Having initially signed up for the MA in Modern Literature, I was unsure of whether I’d undertake a creative dissertation, although the option was available to me. Having the 70/30 balance between creative and critical writing in the creative dissertation was attractive as it meant I got to play to my strengths as a writer, whilst still giving myself room to critically explore the subject of young female athletes in children’s literature.

The best advice I read was to write 500 words a day. That way, I hit the word count within 30 days. I knew that would be a huge weight off my shoulders as reaching the word count is the most stressful thing for me, in any essay. The earlier I hit it, the more time I have to ask for feedback and edit accordingly. While I was unemployed at the beginning of lockdown, I managed the bulk of the dissertation by treating the MA like a 9-5 job (this was never going to be possible every single day, but I kept as close to it as I could) and working on those 500 words day in, day out, with evenings reserved for reading wider material that would help with the critical reflection. 

In mid-July, however, I began a job which took up four full days a week, and time management became a skill I had to master. Many of the words I’d written were jumbled notes: shreds of paragraphs splattered onto the page saved *just in case* they came in useful later – and they did. From this, I gradually (read: slowly, diligently, and with more tea breaks than I care to admit) glued the pieces together to create two stories and a critical reflection. I work very slowly, so having a document of random ideas and quotations I could refer back to was useful in case I forgot about any points I wanted to make. Eventually (one week before the deadline) I had completed two stories and a critical reflection. I put this down to setting aside big chunks of time where I could work at whatever pace suits me that day, and doing this as consistently as possible.

Here is a sample from one of the stories:

From 'Jasmine, Football, and the Grumbling Appendix'

Jasmine whipped the ball around her marker with an expert flick of her ankle. She had practised this move against her brother, Alex, a thousand times on their cul-de-sac, always relishing the confusion on his face. She darted around him, low and quick, like a fly you just can’t swat. The following summer, Alex’s confusion turned to frustration one day when she beat him five-nil. He didn’t come out to play after that, so their father suggested Jasmine sign up to play with the village team, Rose Bay Rovers. Today, she was in the starting 11, playing for a place in the local cup final. 

Wednesday 23 September 2020

Ruth Stacey, "I, Ursula"

Ruth Stacey
is a lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Worcester. Her second full poetry collection, I Ursula, was published Jan 2020, by V.Press Poetry. Her first poetry collection, Queen, Jewel, Mistress, was published by Eyewear Publishing, 2015. Her pamphlets include Inheritance (Mothers Milk Books, 2017); a duet with another poet, Katy Wareham Morris, this explores 19th-century experience of motherhood, contrasted with a 21st-century mother's voice. Inheritance won Best Collaborative Work at the 2018 Saboteur Awards. A poetic memoir, How to Wear Grunge, was published by The Knives, Forks and Spoons Press in 2018 and was shortlisted for best pamphlet at the Saboteur Awards 2019. An experimental pamphlet, Viola the Virgin Queen, is published by Knives, Forks and Spoons Press. Stacey is currently writing an imagined memoir in poetry of the tarot artist Pamela Colman Smith, as part of her PhD study. Her website is here.

About I, Ursula

By Ruth Stacey

My second poetry collection focuses on muses and discusses various aspects of the artist / muse relationship. Muses are often used as a projection for the artist's personal feelings, making a muse something that becomes idealised and objectified. How does the muse feel about this, and how do they strive for their own artistic expression? There are varying perspectives in the book; some poems embody and voice famous muses like Lizzie Siddal, Jane Morris or Iseult Gonne. Other poems direct the gaze at the poet’s muses becomes poetic memoir. The relationship between artist and muse is often romanticised and sensual; it can project a strength on to the muse to buttress against the existential dread and anxiety felt in the artist. This becomes an uneven relationship of unreliable narratives. I explored many poetic forms as a way of expressing these anxieties and desires. The various expressions of haunting and themes in the work, that appeared in the many redrafts and creative process, include inhabiting rural landscapes, animal shapeshifting, mental illness, inheritances, folklore, witchcraft and fears centred around mothering children.

Here are two poems from the collection:

Jeanne HĂ©buterne

I paint quickly, staring into a mirror propped
against new canvases. 

Modi sketches me; my neck slicks into a snake. 
Brown eyes tender in his version of my face.

Peach and pink oil paint on my skin: 
painted becomes my skin. 

My brush echoes the blue of my robes
in my cheekbones.

Auburn hair held back by a circlet of fabric 
transforms into a headdress. 

Queen-fierce expression stares out, 
reflected from my mirror into portrait. 

He lowers his sketch of me to note 
I capture my soul more accurately than he.

Averse Muse 

If you don't want 
poems written about 
you, then

do not make me fall in love with you
by seducing me softly until the honey

You should flee female poets; their call 
will transform you into a buck 
leaping to escape the word dogs. 

This is solid advice; it is true. 
Beware, your brown eyes will turn bitter – 
I am not just this season, not your bit of fun 

because I will write poems that will petrify 
your royal jelly into wax; I will 
describe the growl that you make as you come

Monday 21 September 2020

Shreya Sen-Handley, "Strange"

Former television journalist and producer for CNBC and MTV, and East India head for Australasian Channel [V], Shreya Sen-Handley is the author of two books with HarperCollins, the recently published short story collection Strange, and the award-winning Memoirs of My Body, published in 2017. A librettist for the Welsh National Opera, the first South Asian woman to have written an international opera according to the international press, their multicultural opera Migrations will go on tour in the UK in 2021. Shreya is also a columnist for the international media, writing for the National Geographic, CNN, The Hindu, Times of India, The Guardian, and more, a creative writing teacher for British universities and other institutions, and an illustrator for Hachette, HarperCollins, Welsh National Opera, Arts Council England, and Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature. Her short stories have been published, broadcast, and shortlisted for prizes in Britain, India and Australia. This year she wrote her first ever poems, which went on to be published and broadcast in Britain and India, as well as spearheading a British national campaign against hate crimes. She is currently working on a new Welsh National Opera production Creating Change in which she combines poetry and illustration, and writing her third book for HarperCollins, the travelogue The Accidental Tourist, alongside her monthly column for top Asian newspapers The Asian Age and Deccan Chronicle.

About Strange

The thirteen twisted tales of the unexpected in Shreya Sen-Handley’s Strange are about everyday people whose lives take unforeseen turns. They find themselves suddenly and inexorably drawn into encounters and situations that weren’t part of their plan, but which result in the shocking revelation of buried parts of their psyches, haunting both them and their readers for a long time after their stories have come to an end. Author Prajwal Parajuly calls the book ‘a superb collection of profoundly unsettling and unusual stories,' whilst Ruskin Bond writes, ‘The author is adept at evoking an atmosphere of fear in apparently mundane situations. After reading some of these dark tales I found myself looking under my bed.’ 

For all its links to India, it has as many to the British Midlands, and the wonders and vicissitudes of life therein. Amongst the stories its people and places have inspired in this collection are ‘Room for Two,’ in which a Nottingham mother and daughter go on holiday to come to terms with difficult truths about themselves, and ‘Full Circle,’ in which the Bengalis of Leicester embrace enchantment in different ways. You can read an extract from the latter story below. You can also read a review of Strange on Everybody's Reviewing here

From ‘Full Circle’ in Strange, By Shreya Sen-Handley

The usually gloomy Bosworth Drive community hall had been transformed by a dozen large chandeliers, loud music, and even louder voices hailing each other in hearty Bengali, into a mela. Except that it wasn’t so much a mela as a pujo. A pujo, mind you, not a puja, Yana reminded herself in that exact finger-waggling manner Putul ‘Aunty’ had, and hid a little smile. A puja is worship of the gods, Biplob Uncle had explained in his pantomime villain way (twirling his moustache and booming at her jocularly), but a pujo is living it up like the gods. 

Pujo, anywhere in the world, means getting up at the crack of dawn to slokas sung in a gravelly, just-outta-bed voice. For Yana, it meant gathering at the festive hub of the community hall bright and early for the most enormous breakfast anyone had ever seen. Luchi, aloor dum, even prawn kochuri if the aunty in charge of the kitchen had woken happy. And the most mouth-watering range of soft, squidgy, syrupy sweetmeats ever served outside Bengal. That was just the start. For the rest of the day, the hall would fill with music and games and as much chatter as could be squeezed in, making up for months of maintaining a stiff, very British upper lip (which even the British no longer bothered with; not since Diana’s death, Biplob said). Lunch would see a mind-boggling array of delicacies, from paturi—spicy fish baked in banana leaf—to patishapta – sweet coconut and cream filled pancakes. And all this was just a prelude to the evening’s revelry! 

‘First you eat, and then you eat again, then you gossip, and (sometimes without being asked) sing until your jaw clacks loosely, and your belly grows so large from all the food, it obstructs your vision and makes you believe your singing is going down well,’ Biplob’s brother, Subir, said with that same twinkle in his eye. Clean-shaven as he was, there was no opportunity to twirl a moustache. ‘Then you repeat it all, till you’re round enough to roll home at the end, promising yourself to never do it again, and yet you do!’

The Bengalis of Leicester were her mother’s folk …

Friday 18 September 2020

On Creativity, Covid and Kindness


A Statement

By Jonathan Taylor

I've never believed that writers are in competition with one another. I believe in a democratic community of writers, a Republic of Letters. The same goes for universities: I don't believe in the myth of competition between university Creative Writing departments, for example. Writers in universities, whether staff or students, are all part of the same community, the same carnivalesque republic. 

It seems to me more important than ever to hold onto this idea at the moment. We're all  confronted by huge challenges in education and the wider writing world. There's no point pretending otherwise: it's an incredibly difficult situation for everyone, and we're all facing the toughest year in higher education most of us have ever known. There are so many challenges we've got to deal with in the next academic year - safety, sickness, mental health, shielding, lockdowns, economic pressures, new technologies, fallible technologies, new ways of learning and teaching, situations that change every week ... and so on, and so forth.

It's important to acknowledge these things, I think, from the start. It's not going to be easy, and there are going to be problems, mistakes, hiccups (to say the least) throughout the year, as we all struggle to stay upright on the shifting sands of Covid World. 

Above all, in Covid World, I think it's important to be kind - to pack away any notions of competitiveness between writers, between departments, between universities, and substitute instead a model of cooperation, support, mutual aid. Faced with such huge challenges, I think writers - staff and students - should support one another, both within and between universities. I know I'm preaching mainly to the converted: in my experience, this is exactly what writers do. I've been helped immensely by other writers over the years, and found the writing and university-writing communities very supportive. 

On a practical level, therefore, I'd like to make some suggestions to writers who work at all universities (in whatever capacity), about sharing resources, information, opportunities, knowledge - above all, about talking to one another, and supporting one another as both creative writers and learners or educators.

In my own small sphere, there are things I can offer - for example: 1. if you have a book out, and you'd like it reviewed on Everybody's Reviewing, contact me, and I'll see if I can find a reviewer; 2. if you have a book out, and you'd like it featured on this blog, again, please contact me; 3. if you'd like to join the Facebook group I run, "Creative Writing at Leicester University," on which I post news, articles, opportunities, jobs, calls for submissions and competitions, you are more than welcome, whether or not you are in Leicester; 4. if you have any questions about writing, teaching, publishing, or want any advice, and think I might be able to answer them, please do get in touch - I'll try my best, and, at the very least, I might be able to put you in touch someone else who can help; 5. if you teach in a university, and want someone who is in the same boat as yourself to talk things over with, share resources and rants, then again, please do get in touch. My email, for all of these things is jt265 [at] le [dot] ac [dot] uk.

Conversely, if you would like to share information about your own events or opportunities, or if you'd like to write an article about your own experiences, as a teacher or learner in Covid World, for this blog, or if you'd like to write a review for Everybody's Reviewing, or if you have any other ideas about how we might all support one another, in terms of writing, learning and teaching, then please do email me. 

None of this is intended to undermine the necessity for writers to be paid for their work. Sharing information, resources, help, rants is not the same as working for free. It's just a way of supporting one another at a difficult time. Let's all have a conversation about how best we can do that - how we can carry on the literary carnival in an age of social distancing and lockdowns. 

It goes without saying that all these opinions are my own. 

Thank you for reading, Jonathan

Tuesday 8 September 2020

A. J. Lees, "Brazil That Never Was"

A. J. Lees was born in St Helens and qualified in medicine from The London Hospital, Whitechapel in 1970. He trained in neurology at University College Hospitals, London and La SalpĂȘtriere in Paris and was appointed to the staff of the National Hospital, Queen Square at the age of 32. He is one of the three most highly cited Parkinson’s disease researchers in the world and was responsible for the introduction of apomorphine therapy as a treatment for advanced Parkinson’s disease. For his contributions to medical education  and his research achievements  he was elected a member of the Brazilian Academia Nacional de Medicina in 2010. 

His first book to be published by Notting Hill Editions, entitled Mentored by a Madman, described how the writings of William Seward Burroughs helped him to operate effectively within the complex milieu of UK medical research and inspired some of his research. Several of Lees's books, including Ray of Hope and The Hurricane Port, grew out of a deep love for the port of Liverpool.


About Brazil That Never Was

By  A. J. Lees

Brazil That Never Was is about my yearning for an idealised past. When my visits to the Liverpool docks with my father abruptly ended, a library book that told the story of an explorer who had  disappeared in the Mato Grosso came to the rescue. The evenings I spent reading about his vanishing  were as alive as any I can remember from my childhood and reconnected me with Brazil. Lieutenant Colonel Percy Fawcett had written in his log book: ‘The forest in these solitudes is always full of voices, the soft whisperings of those that came before.' His adventure insulated me from my first perceived failures and created an enclave of mystery beyond the scope of charts. I hoped that Fawcett could lead me to a place where there was no way out.

Even after I had become a neurologist and learned to diagnose brain injury in the street, the Brazil of my bedroom remained. In spite of  my new deductive skills and  love of material rationalism I was sometimes overcome with a dangerous sentimentality that stemmed from an indelible screen memory of Brazil. I felt as if something had gone missing and increasingly desired a fugitive moment in time that I feared would never return.

Fifty years after I had first read Exploration Fawcett, I set out on a quest to try to get answers. What I discovered was far more extraordinary than any of the wild notions put forward to explain Fawcett’s vanishing in 1925. A psychedelic encounter in the Amazon convinced me that my past had never really existed and that I could never go home.  

From Brazil That Never Was

By A. J. Lees

The Oakwood Library became my sanctuary. Its grand drawing rooms, with picture rails and sunburst stucco ceilings, were lined with hardbacked books, fresh and stale, fat and thin, large and small. I roamed the shelves, following paths that fascinated me, and taking in the scent of wisdom. The hours flashed by in minutes as I sat on the ledge of the bay window absorbing the colourful stories of the dead. Cocooned in this place, I was able to divine the Atlantic from a grain of salt. 

My father brought down a dog-eared book with soiled green cloth boards called Exploration Fawcett. It still had the remains of its dust jacket showing three men in a canoe confronting a giant snake. 'You’ll enjoy this,' he whispered with that knowing voice and quiet smile that had made him such an inspiring and popular schoolmaster. 'It’s about an explorer who vanished without trace in the Amazon' ....

In bed at night I read about Lieutenant-Colonel Fawcett, one of the very last heroic Victorian explorers who for ten years had trekked down death-filled rivers surveying stretches of disputed territory on the borders of Bolivia, Peru and Brazil. At the river port of Rurrenbaque he had watched a woman suckle a litter of pigs and at Santa Cruz de la Sierra in the tropical lowlands of Bolivia he learned of new-born children being fed to swine. He wrote that one night he had been awakened by a jaguar rubbing against his back as it slunk under his hammock.

Fawcett wrote that no imagination could conjure up a vision equal to the beauty of the reality. The Mato Grosso was irresistible, with its low whistling bird song and gorgeous butterflies. The monochrome photographs in the book depicted a lost world but one that felt intensely familiar. A sketch of a drowning man being eaten by piranhas at the beginning of one chapter emphasised the dangers, while the line drawings of ruins and hieroglyphs raised my expectations of an El Dorado.

Thursday 3 September 2020

Ellie Fleur Johnson, "Phonetic A Bee Seas"

Hello fellow Creative Writers, let me formally introduce myself to you: I’m Ellie Fleur Johnson. I graduated with an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Leicester last year, and since then I have been working on a novel which centres on themes of feminism, sisterhood and rape culture. I have also freelanced in marketing, shadow-writing and copy-writing. But that’s not what I’m here to discuss today!

Ladies and Gentleman (and non-binaries), I'm here to tell you I have written and illustrated a book, which I have self-published. The book is called Phonetic A Bee Seas, a rather hilarious pun on ‘ABCs,’ if I say so myself. Follow Tommy Fire-Tiger and Daisy Wood-Dog as they explore the Phonetic Alphabet together. You may be fooled by the cute cartoonish drawings inside, but this book is strictly NOT for children. Phonetic A Bee Seas includes the following: sex and drug references, adult language, graphic images and bad puns. 

What started off as a silly inside joke between myself and my partner quickly developed into random doodles and nonsensical scribbles. I found that the project was something to focus on  during lockdown, a release and diversion.

My partner is a pilot and uses the Phonetic Alphabet on a daily basis. It's something I have neither remembered nor understood. My anxiety builds every time a person uses it to spell out their postcode: 'Echo Tango Foxtrot Six Seven Nine Bravo Sierra.' I’m left trying to form some sort of sentence out of the mess, flabbergasted. Aghast. Or worse, they ask me to use it. Why not 'Egg Toe Fishfingers Six Seven Nine Bumblebee Sausage-Loops'? It’s beyond me. 

My book explores the ‘real’ Phonetic Alphabet whilst also suggesting a fun alternative. It’s for those who use it on a daily basis, those who want to learn, or those who enjoy an easy laugh. You can find it available to buy here.

If you’d like to delve deeper into my writing then my website here is the place to go.

Here’s a cheeky preview of Phonetic A Bee Seas ....