Friday 26 November 2021

Ian Humphreys (ed.), "Why I Write Poetry"


About Why I Write Poetry: Essays on Becoming a Poet, Keeping Going and Advice for the Writing Life, ed. Ian Humphreys

What motivates poets in the 21st century? How do they find their voice? What themes and subject matters inspire them? How do they cope with set-backs and deal with success? What keeps them writing? Why I Write Poetry, edited by Ian Humphreys, combines twenty-five lively and thought-provoking essays, along with individual writing prompts to help you create your own new poetry.

The book includes essays by Romalyn Ante, Khairani Barokka, Hafsah Aneela Bashir, Leo Boix, Vahni Capildeo, Mary Jean Chan, Jo Clement, Sarah Corbett, Jane Commane, Rishi Dastidar, Jonathan Edwards, Rosie Garland, W. N. Herbert, Ian Humphreys, Keith Jarrett, Zaffar Kunial, Rachel Mann, Andrew McMillan, Kim Moore, Pascale Petit, Jacqueline Saphra, Clare Shaw, Daniel Sluman, Jean Sprackland, and Jennifer Wong.

Ian Humphreys, photograph by Sarah Turton

About the editor

Ian Humphreys’s debut collection Zebra (Nine Arches Press, 2019) was nominated for the Portico Prize. He is the editor of Why I Write Poetry (Nine Arches Press, 2021) and the producer/ co-editor of a forthcoming anthology on Sylvia Plath (Nine Arches Press, 2022). His work has been highly commended in the Forward Prizes for Poetry and won first prize in the Hamish Canham Prize. A fellow of The Complete Works, Ian’s poems are showcased in Ten: Poets of the New Generation (Bloodaxe).

You can read more about Why I Write Poetry on the publisher's website here. Below, the editor Ian Humphreys shares an anecdote about an encounter and advice he received, and his own later instinct to "voice the unsayable." 

From the Introduction to Why I Write Poetry

The late poet John Ash once pleaded with me not to take up poetry. 

It was 1983. He had cornered me in the newly renovated kitchen of a house in Whalley Range. John rented the adjacent room. My friend Tarik rented a room on the second floor. Another friend Mark was pirouetting by the dishwasher when John stormed in to complain about the noise. 

We had been giddily fixing 3am snacks while attempting an off-key rendition of ‘Love Pains’ by Yvonne Elliman, so it was a fair cop. John didn’t stay angry for long. He asked what I was studying, what my plans were, and seemed relieved to hear they did not involve poetry. 

‘Good choice, very sensible. Whatever you do, please don’t become a poet! Stick to something where you can earn a bit of money.’ I remember laughing to myself. At that moment, I honestly could not think of anything I would enjoy less – an occupation that seemed duller – than writing poetry. 

While researching this book, I discovered that around the time we met, John had written a short essay about his collection The Goodbyes (Carcanet, 1982). The piece was republished two decades later in Don’t Ask Me What I Mean: Poets in Their Own Words (Picador). 

One part of the essay, in particular, caught my eye: ‘… many of the poems were written to the accompaniment of the kind of music you might hear at parties or in good nightclubs, that is to say, songs of August Darnell, Ashford and Simpson or the Chic Organisation, and on occasion the words of these songs have found their way into the poems.’ 

If only John had mentioned this during his pep talk. Perhaps I wouldn’t have waited thirty years before starting to write poetry myself. At school, we were taught the Romantics, nothing modern. After sitting my A-levels, I did not pick up a book of poems for two decades. I was unaware that contemporary poetry celebrated popular culture, that a ‘serious’ lyric poet could be inspired by August Darnell aka ‘Kid Creole’ of Kid Creole and the Coconuts. 

John and I hardly spoke again. Once, over burning toast, he recommended Prince’s overlooked early albums. A year or so later, I heard he had moved to New York where he became associated with the New York School of poets. 

Several poems in my debut collection Zebra (Nine Arches Press, 2019) explore my coming of age in 1980s Manchester. The gay club I had frequented the night John advised against poetry as a vocation is a touchstone in the book. I began to write about those early days on and around Canal Street, I think, to try and work out something about my formative years. For sure, there was joy, exhilaration and freedom. But there was also fear; a background dread that we accepted back then as part of life’s rhythm, as relentless as the four-on-the-floor beat of those Hi-NRG hits we lived for. It was fear of the unknown. Fear of illness. Fear of society’s disapproval which at any moment could mutate into danger.

Such contradictory emotions can be difficult to articulate, as slippery as a lager-soaked dancefloor. What I longed to communicate was feeling not fact, and this seemed best conveyed through the shimmering medium of poetry. 

The need to voice the unsayable – reach for the ungraspable – is one of the main reasons I write poetry. It’s a motive I share with many of my peers. When I turned to social media to ask why poets do what they do, many replied with answers along the lines of: 

To make sense of life. 
To make sense of the world. 
To connect with my inner world. 
To say things I could not otherwise express.

Another response that came up, again and again, was compulsion: 

I write poetry because I must. 
It is a thing I do, like breathing. 
I wrote poetry before I could write. 
I can’t help myself. 

Over one hundred poets responded, with variations on these two themes accounting for around ninety percent of all answers put forward. This posed a question: how could we prevent our contributors from writing multiple versions of the same essay? 

The answer? Jane [Commane] and I identified what we most admired in the work of the selected poets. We then asked each of them to explore a theme reflecting this idiosyncratic quality as they riffed on their craft. 

As you will discover, the tactic worked wonders. The resulting twenty-five essays are fascinating and varied. There’s little repetition, and thankfully even less navel-gazing. 

Each piece is unique in its approach to the trials, tribulations and pleasures of writing poetry. The mix of styles is satisfyingly rich, from the informal to the academic, the lyric to the dreamlike. Together, the compositions stand as testament to the robust state of poetry in 21st century Britain. 

Had I not started writing eight years ago, I would have missed out on so much, including the chance to curate and edit this book. As such, I am delighted I listened to instinct rather than advice, and eventually shimmied my way towards a calling, of sorts, in poetry. 

Monday 22 November 2021

Alison Moore, "The Retreat"

Alison Moore, photograph by Beth Walsh Photography

Alison Moore’s short stories have been published in various magazines, journals and anthologies, including Best British Short Stories and Best British Horror, and broadcast on BBC Radio. The title story of her first collection, 'The Pre-War House,' won the New Writer Novella Prize. Her debut novel, The Lighthouse, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Awards, winning the McKitterick Prize. She recently published her fifth novel, The Retreat, and a trilogy for children, beginning with Sunny and the Ghosts. Her website is here, and she's on Twitter @alimooreauthor  

About The Retreat, by Alison Moore

Sandra Peters once dreamed of going to art college. Now in her forties, she is working as a receptionist but still harbours artistic ambitions. At a drop-in artists’ group, she sees an advert for a two-week artists’ retreat on Lieloh, a previously private island - home to a reclusive silent-film star - which has intrigued her since childhood. She signs up for the retreat, delighted by the idea of living ‘in Valerie Swanson’s house, among artists, in a little community. She imagines them supporting and inspiring one another.’ Sandra’s story develops alongside a second narrative focusing on a writer called Carol who’s been trying and failing to write a fantasy novel, and hopes to finally manage it secluded on an island.

Below, you can read a short extract from the novel. 

From The Retreat

Liel was an in-between place. Lying one hundred miles from the English coast, the island resembled Sandra’s known world but it had its own currency and its own system of car number plates; its post boxes were blue and its telephone boxes were yellow. It was not far from France but was not French. The island had its own distinctive language but Sandra had only heard English spoken there, though in a foreign accent. Some of the street signs and house names were in English and some were in French, or at least it looked like French. She did not, when she first holidayed there, know much French. At school, she learnt to say Je suis une fille unique, which sounded better than it was, and J’ai un cochon d’Inde, although she did not have one. Later still, she learnt phrases from a book: Good morning and Good afternoon, and I must go now and Go away! She could say A table for one please and I didn’t order this and Can I have a refund? She could say Can you help me? and I’m really sorry and I don’t understand. She imagined herself stranded with these phrases, hoping she would be all right.

Friday 19 November 2021

Gary Day, "Snapshot 1952" and "The Art of Perspective"


Gary Day is a retired English lecturer. His research mainly lay in three areas, the history of literary criticism, the workings of class in British literature and the persistence of sacrificial ritual in the development of drama. He had a column in the Times Higher for a number of years and has also edited two volumes on the history of British poetry as well as the three volume Wiley Encyclopaedia of British Literature 1660-1789. He teaches courses at the Rothsay Education Centre in Bedford and at the Settlement in Letchworth. He has been involved in amateur theatre for over thirty years and has poems published in Silver Apples and Beyond Words

Below, you can read two poems by Gary. 

Snapshot 1952

See them fly
To the church, to
The open-armed future,
She a spray of white,
He a flash of dark. 
The days of their happiness
Pass in a shining house
With shadowy corners.
Love has many rooms
And sometimes
They are alone
In different ones.
After long years
You dream of her dress,
Floating in the wake
Of their togetherness.

The Art of Perspective

The apprentice yawns as he opens
The shutters to sunshine and birdsong.
He gazes at the purple of distant groves;
Then turns to face the clutter
Of tools, panels, brushes, shells
Frames and half-finished pictures.
This morning he has to grind pigments
For The Calling of the Apostles, the most arduous
Being the blue; pulverising the lapis,
Mixing the powder with beeswax and resin,
Kneading the sticky blob in bowls
Of water to deliver the ultramarine.
But today is special. After years
Of decorating parade shields, copying drawings,
Studying the human form, learning
About perspective and how to handle a brush
In his master’s style, he’s to paint
A section of background and a figure in the crowd.
This is where his future starts. The next step
Is a journeyman, then he must submit
His masterpiece. If it’s accepted,
He can open his own shop with his own garzoni.
But he mustn’t lose focus, he must stay
In the now, inducing the blue.
When, at last, he’s motioned to the canvas he’s startled
By the size of a kingfisher fired from a cloud, but says nothing.
His master speaks: ‘Modulate grey into blue here.
Match the angle of this mountain with that arm.
Fill this space on the right, next to the bearded man,
With a youth, black doublet, peplum.’
Centuries tick by.
The boy with the thumb in his belt
Turns as if someone’s called his name.
He marvels at the strange beings,
Giants, as in the age of Noah, who
Pass to and fro between worlds hung on walls.
Some are familiar; landscapes, still lives, the empty tomb.
Others astound him: An iron monster shuffling into its lair,
Its breath blurring the branchless trees; flowers on fire
In a vase; blue people dancing wildly in a ring;
Pink, sharp-edged creatures with triangle faces,
A ghost screaming.
Sometimes the giants peer into his little moment of time,
Baffled by the three Christs; two summoning the salt-tongued fishermen,
The third blessing them as apostles; they are puzzled, too, by how the prelates
Can be witnessing the birth of their own ministry; and they remark
On the distraction of the crowd, on the sail that looks like a solar panel,
And on how much they admire the blue.

Wednesday 17 November 2021

Carol Leeming, "Song for Guests"


Carol Leeming, photo by Hana Kovacs

Carol Leeming MBE FRSA is Leicester born, of Windrush parents from Jamaica and Antigua, and grew up partly in Jamaica. She received her Queen’s honour as a playwright and poet, and for her contribution to Leicester arts and culture. Carol is a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Arts, a Cultural Olympian of 2012, and is featured on the University Grassroutes Writers' Gallery microsite here. Carol’s choreopoetry is highlighted by Corinne Fowler in the Cambridge Companion to Black & Asian Writing 1945-2010, ed. Deidre Osborne. In 2018, Carol’s poem ‘Molly’ was displayed across a Leicester University Campus building, as part of a centenary celebration week for the British Suffragettes Movement. 

Other notable work includes Carol’s debut chapbook The Declamations of Cool Eye published by Dare Diva. A film poem, entitled Enchanter, featured the poem 'Drawing' from the chapbook. You can see it here. Some other plays produced include Storm, & The Twisted Plait at Haymarket Theatre, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Diva, and Love the life you live … Live the life you love at Curve Theatre, also published in the book Hidden Stories Anthology, published by Leicester University/Phoenix. 

Carol’s poetry features in a number of anthologies. These include 'Valley Dreamers' in  Out of Bounds, ed. Jackie Kay (Bloodaxe), 'Some Things that Never Failed Me' in Covid 19 & Poetry Anthology, ed. Anthony Caleshu and Rory Waterman (Shearsman Press), ‘Song for Guests’ (translated into ten languages) in Welcome to Leicester, ed. Emma Lee (Dahlia Books), Overland, Oversea, ed, Kathleen Bell, Emma Lee & Siobhan Logan (Five Leaves). A recurring feature of her work is to give voice to the voiceless, untold diverse stories, or magic realism in narratives, compelling diverse characters, with distinctive voices. 

Carol recently debuted at A Time to Breathe Festival curated by Greta Mendez MBE, London 2021, in a performance of her new choreopoem play, entitled The Dreadful Dance of Ms. Iniquity. Carol also has a major collection of writing, poetry and choreopoetry entitled The Eclipse of Dread, in preparation for book publication, along with writing the final part of her choreopoem trilogy, ‘Go Where the Songs Are.’ 

Carol works freelance, in literature performing arts and digital media. She is a multi-award award-winning author, published poet, director, playwright, dramaturge, performer and tutor. She was dramaturge and director for Harley, Scholar & Stateman by Pamela Roberts. She previously worked full-time as Resident Assistant Director at Curve Theatre Leicester, on theatre productions My Beautiful Laundrette by Hanif Kureishi, and West Side Story by Laurents/Sondheim/Bernstein.

Carol currently is part-time lecturer at De Montfort University, BA Performing Arts, Guest Visiting Lecturer on the MA Creative Writing at Nottingham University, and Guest Visiting Lecturer Writing for Performance at Derby University, in addition to mentoring prisoners, to create poetry for the NO BARS II Project Anthology launched in 2021. Carol is also Patron of East Midlands Women Awards. 

See more about Carol's work here and hereBelow, you can read a poem by Carol. 

Song for Guests

           'The new arrival of a guest is reason for a feast' - A North African Bedouin Custom

and hate 
Is flung
it weights down 
a tar-paulin night as
folk crowd fire warmth 
dreaming of dark tunnel  
escape with luminous
hands of friendship 
held aloft ready to catch…?

Welcome us 

We welcome you all
Come … to us 

Sleepless knots of men
crouch into bush hides  
waiting for smoky vehicles
stowaway with stony 
grey lips of newsprint words 
pointed to goad or reject? 

Welcome us 

We welcome you all
Come … to us

Skeins of women children 
hold emotions like nets with
wounded screams as
running tears hearts salt
human streams across earth 
its seas would it wash away
foul slimes cruel indifference
a dirty din from a baited polis 
Is that blood on their hands?

Welcome us

We welcome you all
Come … be with us
Our table is full 
Yet empty missing you

Tuesday 16 November 2021

James Nash, "Heart Stones"

James Nash is a writer and poet. A long-term resident of Leeds, his third collection of poems, Coma Songs, was published in 2003 and reprinted in 2006. He has two poems in Branch-Lines (Enitharmon Press, 2007), among fifty contemporary poets, including Seamus Heaney and U. A. Fanthorpe. 

Since 2012, his poetry has been published by Valley Press, beginning with selected poems, A Bit of An Ice Breaker, and his first collection of sonnets, Some Things Matter.

Cinema Stories, celebrating the history of cinema in Leeds and written with fellow poet Matthew Hedley Stoppard, came out in 2015..  

A Bench for Billie Holiday was published in 2018, followed by his latest collection of sonnets, Heart Stones, in November 2021.

James's website is here.

About Heart Stones, by James Nash

In his third volume of sonnets, James Nash examines urban and seaside environments in a Yorkshire he has known through fifty years of living in the North. His sonnets soar over the land - from Leeds, a predominantly Victorian city, to the Wolds in the East Riding of Yorkshire, walking and cycling into the natural world with a pen and paper never far from his hand. 

James openly shows his debts to the great poets and writers of previous generations, from Winifred Holtby to Philip Larkin, from Matthew Arnold to Dylan Thomas. To borrow some of his won words, James's gifrt sit to be a "clear microscope" for our times, finding hope in the many "miralces of detail" that pass through his unwavering gaze.

Below, you can read two poems from Heart Stones. You can see further details about the collection on the publisher's website here

From Heart Stones

Yorkshire skies for Patricia

We shared these Yorkshire skies at different times,
A West Riding jumble of spire and mill
And, much later, the eastern coastal dreams 
Which began for me at Garrowby Hill.
I’d no idea fifty years ago
That each daily walk would now be full of you,
The cliffs and beaches, where white pebbles glow,
Each prospect of the Wolds, each distant view.
And yesterday I saw across the bay
As dusk deepened with the slow dropping sun,
You signalling in the last dregs of day;
You are the lighthouse flash, not yet quite done.
I would give you a heart-stone from the beach
But you are fading light, too faint to reach. 

Heart stones 

The incoming tide has covered them, fanned
Over, drowned the heart-shaped pattern of stones
Made from beach pebbles and secured in sand.
Large, white punctuation marks; the bleached bones
Of a dinosaur’s toes, gathered, arranged 
By a young artist on a bike with time
He did not have, until all slowed and changed,
To leave temporary signs in chalky rhyme.
From our cliff top eyrie we see it all,
Huge heart under water unmoved by tide.
Can love survive whatever might befall,
Perhaps live on when other things have died?
Just this; in slow erosion, it is worn
Down, dissolving more each day, stone by stone.

Friday 12 November 2021

Tionee Joseph, "Mastering the Dissertation"


Tionee Joseph recently completed the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. She has been published by The English and Media Centre and her poem ‘With the Passing of the First Generation’ was published in the Black History Month 2020 edition of Unite by Fly on the Wall Press. She has a YouTube channel where she vlogs about mental health here.

Below, Tionee writes about her experience of the MA Creative Writing Dissertation, and what advice she would give to future MA students undertaking it.

Mastering the Dissertation, by Tionee Joseph

Wow, you’ve finally made it to the Dissertation! Time flies, doesn’t it? On the downside this is the beginning of the end of your MA journey. On the upside, this is your big moment to shine (think talent-show-final with your supervisor as your mentor).

I discovered that the Dissertation at a Master's level is a different beast to the one of the undergraduate level. I wrote a play - a form I had never really written before - but something was telling me this was the perfect opportunity to give it a try. 

My Dissertation project was a full-length play about a couple who take in an acquaintance to stay with them during the beginning of the March 2020 lockdown. The play explores the relationship dynamics that develop between them over a couple of months. 

Anyway, no matter what you decide to write, below are some tips to make the experience easier:

  1. Keep notes from the very beginning; you can track the changes in your process from start to end and it gives you material for your commentary rather than trying to do it retrospectively.
  2. Take notes at each supervision and try to meet with your supervisor regularly. This gives you mini-deadlines to work towards.
  3. If you are struggling to write, do some housekeeping. Write your bibliography and make sure it’s in the correct style, check your presentation is up to spec (using a suitable font and size, pages are numbered, line spacing). I used to do these things at the end but doing them sooner frees you up to concentrate on the writing when you do get back into the flow of it.
  4. Use read aloud function on word for when you can’t spot your own mistakes.
  5. Talk to someone about how it’s been going. Writing can be very solitary and unless you talk to yourself out loud you may not be aware of the issues that are blocking you until you verbalise them. The person you speak to doesn’t need to be a writer, but they could offer an opinion from a reader’s perspective which is just as valuable.  
  6. Track your changes on word. You can see what you originally typed even if you delete it later on. This is useful for the commentary when talking about early drafts.

Good luck! 

Friday 5 November 2021

Carolyn Jess-Cooke, "We Have to Leave the Earth"


Carolyn Jess-Cooke is an award-winning author of poems and novels for adults, published in 23 languages. Her first poetry collection, Inroads, won the Tyrone Guthrie Prize, an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors, a Northern Promise Award, and was shortlisted for the New London Poetry Prize. Currently Reader in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow, she also writes gothic suspense novels as CJ Cooke, including The Nesting and The Lighthouse Witches. Her website is here.

About We Have to Leave the Earth, by Carolyn Jess-Cooke

Carolyn Jess-Cooke’s new poetry collection is both keenly political and deeply personal. The opening poem ‘now’ features a seemingly peaceful domestic scene of a family lounging at home as the starting point for meditation on history, time, mortality and the fate of the planet. Jess-Cooke is unafraid of dark material but is also ultimately hopeful and full of creative strategies to meet challenging times. 

You can see more details about the book on the publisher's website here. Below, you can read a sample poem from the collection. 

From We Have to Leave the Earth

We Have to Leave the Earth Because We Know So Much

He buried the letter in a forest near Auschwitz
where it hibernated for forty winters,
ampersands of his hand dormant 
as field mice, and for all        he knew
the letter would never be found, snows
might drink the ink or the ground 
swallow it as a grave. But
             the urge to bear
witness moved him past consequence 
of being found to speak of what he said
to those he led to the gas chambers – 
that they were not here to be bathed 
as they’d                 been told.
       We are still in that place, 
being moved past consequence or to death, or 
to witness the taking of what is not owed.
We have not passed the urge to obliterate
the Other. We have to leave the earth
because we know too many ways to destroy
her, we have to write these things
we have to tell them to the forest 
and the watchful snows.

Thursday 4 November 2021

Lisabelle Tay, "Pilgrim"

Lisabelle Tay writes poetry and fiction, often with a speculative bent. After completing her studies in English Literature at King’s College London, she returned to Singapore, where she now lives with her husband and son. Her story 'Surat Dari Hantu' recently placed first in the 2020 Dream Foundry short story contest. Pilgrim is her debut poetry pamphlet, and is published by The Emma Press.

About Pilgrim, by Lisabelle Tay

In her debut pamphlet, Lisabelle Tay leads the reader down through the underworlds of illness, motherhood and family histories. Lighting the way with her luminescent poems, the poet draws on Celtic, Classical and Chinese mythologies, appealing to the selkie, Eurydice, and Chang’e in turn as she seeks a path through the darkness – and back to the light.

Pilgrim depicts a journey and a return, moving from the expansive and mythological to the inward and personal. The pilgrim who left is not the pilgrim who returns …

The pamphlet is illustrated by Reena Makwana and printed in monocolour risograph at The Holodeck.

You can see more details about Pilgrim on the publisher's website here. Below, you can read two poems from the collection. 

From Pilgrim


Last night I dreamed of a garden on the moon
a stone rolled away, an empty tomb
a wall of violets dripping milk
a harvest of joy
Today I will pack my bags and start walking
pregnant Lazarus freshly woken
collecting dew in living gourds
bread falling from the sky
I will kiss my husband before I go
dust sleep from his clean-shaven face
then leave, slippery as an egg  

List of Things Beyond My Bedroom Curtains

A warrior cleaning her sword
beside a running river

Water off the tip of a wing

A cave full of immortals

Boats burning on the water

In the beginning God spoke summoning
to-the-light and to-the-darkness

A half-cracked shell

Morning and evening

White dew on the underside of a leaf

A gasp of air, something forgotten
now remembered

A bare kernel of deathlessness
sown silently at dusk

Tuesday 2 November 2021

Congratulations to Laura Besley!

Many congratulations to Laura Besley, University of Leicester MA Creative Writing student, whose book of micro-fiction, (Un)Natural Elements, has just been published! 

Laura Besley is the author of micro-fiction collections (Un)Natural Elements (Beir Bua Press, 2021) and 100neHundred (Arachne Press, 2021), and flash fiction collection The Almost Mothers (Dahlia Books, 2020).  

She has been listed by TSS Publishing as one of the top 50 British and Irish Flash Fiction writers. Her work has been nominated for Best Micro Fiction and her story, 'To Cut a Long Story Short,' will appear in the Best Small Fiction anthology in 2021. 

Having lived in the Netherlands, Germany and Hong Kong, she now lives in land-locked central England and misses the sea. She tweets @laurabesley.

About (Un)Natural Elements, by Laura Besley

(Un)Natural Elements is a collection of micro fiction – none of the stories longer than 150 words, the shortest being only a handful. Many of the stories were written as tweet-length stories from daily prompts on Twitter under the hashtag: Very Short Story 365 (#vss365). 
While collating them, it became apparent that there were patterns and themes, and also a strong sense of nature. Therefore, the collection is divided into nine elements and each element is comprised of five stories.  

None of the stories have titles. There is no concrete reason for this, except perhaps that, while collating it, it seemed fitting, almost as if a title would detract from the brevity of each piece. 

You can read more about Un(Natural) Elements on the publisher's website here. Below, you can read two sample stories from the book. 

From (Un)Natural Elements


Tangs of sea-salt air and vinegar-drenched chips lure me to my home town. 

A charity shop window displays my mother’s dinner service and I realise she’s dead. 

Overhead, gulls cry. 


It’s everywhere. It’s there when I close my eyes to go to sleep at night. It’s in my dreams. It’s the first thing I see when I wake up in the morning. It’s stenciled onto my retina, overlaying all the good memories I have of my daughter. It’s there when I recall her body with bruises in all the wrong places. 

That smile is everywhere.
That it-wasn’t-me smile; that I-know-people-in-high-places smile; that released-due-to-inconclusive-evidence smile. 

The same smile I saw fade just before I cut it from his face. 

At home, I pull down my daughter’s childhood worry box and blow off the dust which curls and dances in the quiet of her room. I open the lid, and without looking at the faded notes in her child-like scrawl, put the smile inside. ‘All gone,’ I whisper, just like I always did, and put the box back on the shelf. 

(Previously published as ‘Silenced’ in Emerge Literary Journal and nominated for Best Micro Fiction).

Monday 1 November 2021

Linda Gask, "Finding the True North: The Healing Power of Place"


Linda Gask trained in Medicine in Edinburgh and is Emerita Professor of Primary Care Psychiatry at the University of Manchester. Having worked as a consultant psychiatrist for many years she is now retired and lives on Orkney. She maintains a popular mental health blog, Patching the Soul, and contributes to Twitter as a mental health influencer @suzpuss. She is the author of The Other Side of Silence (2015), which was featured on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour and serialised in the Times Magazine. In 2017 she was awarded the prestigious President’s Medal by the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

About Finding True North: The Healing Power of Place, by Linda Gask

Finding True North grew out of my desire to try and recover from depression, coming to terms with being diagnosed with a chronic illness, and moving to live, part-time at first, in Orkney. It’s not only about trying to put into practice all those things I spent my life telling my patients to do, and failing to do myself, but also trying to understand what ‘recovery’ from depression means. Struggling to find a way forward meant I had to revisit the past. Gradually, I began to realise that, in my many years of travelling around the world as an academic, I had really been seeking a place where I could feel much more grounded in myself. 

The following brief excerpt describes a scene from my return to Haida Gwaii, a remote forested archipelago off the North-West of Canada which is home to the Haida people … and what I learned about myself on that journey’.

From Finding True North

It is early September and Orkney’s dark autumnal skies are filled with geese in transit, flying in their familiar V formation, which I always imagine is led by a bad-tempered senior with the flaps of his leather hood trailing as he turns to shout ‘keep up.’ Sitting at my desk, I am writing about the climax of the Canadian expedition.

After two days, we reached our furthest point into the wilderness: the world heritage site of SG̱ang Gwaay and a row of totem poles that has stood for over a hundred years, since the inhabitants moved to the modern settlement they live in now. The only audible sound came from the waves as they breached the shore, and a watchman, a celebrated modern Haida artist, who told us the story of each carving.

‘The poles of the houses are slowly being absorbed by the forest. Doesn’t that make you feel kind of sad?’ one of our group asked.

‘Everything goes back to the earth eventually,’ he said. ‘One day each of these poles will fall. It is what is meant to happen.’

We walked back over the crest of the island to the boat, through virgin temperate rainforest of red cedar, spruce and hemlock, drunk with the heavy scent of dark earth and damp, lush vegetation spread with a seamless down of moss. More hung from the trees like tinsel on a Christmas tree and unfamiliar fungi colonised the stumps. Even the light which filtered through the canopy was tinged green. This was exactly as I have always imagined the underworld. It was eerie, not of this world, and I felt disappointed when we emerged into the light because in that other place time seemed to be suspended.

During those few days I began to feel more optimistic than I had since receiving my diagnosis of kidney disease. Having recovered from sepsis, a life-threatening disease, I became more at ease with the future. I have the freedom to make of it what I choose, but the anxiety that has been with me all my life still exists and will probably never leave.

However, there was something about Haida Gwaii that reminded me of the Buddhist concept of the flow of life. Like the forest plants all around them, the remains of the villages will be recycled by nature. This is the reality of our existence. We make the most of the lifewe have, however brief, but the outcome is inevitable. 

What are we going to do with our time? 

What really matters to us?

There is something about caring for others in extremis that touches the core of who we are. It can enhance us through reflection on the profound questions of what it means to be human, but it can, in equal strength, damage us and leave us less capable of responding with humanity.

It is very hard to separate ‘me’ from the doctor I trained to be. My ‘self’ has become altered by being entwined both with my professional persona and the lives of my patients, and it is difficult to tell my story without recourse to the clinical tales that illustrate it. Now, the stories filed in my memory are those of people I meet along the way.