Monday 30 May 2022

Melissa Studdard, "Dear Selection Committee"


Melissa Studdard, photograph by Alexis Rhone Fancher

Melissa Studdard is the author of two poetry collections, Dear Selection Committee and I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast, and the chapbook Like a Bird with a Thousand Wings. Her work has been featured by PBS, NPR, The New York Times, The Guardian, and the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series, and has also appeared in periodicals such as POETRY, Kenyon Review, Psychology Today, New Ohio Review, Harvard Review, Missouri Review, SWWIM Daily, and New England Review. Her awards include The Penn Review Poetry Prize, the Tom Howard Prize from Winning Writers, the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, and more.

Below, you can read more about her new collection, Dear Selection Committee. You can also read two poems from her earlier collection, I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast, on Creative Writing at Leicester here. You can read an interview with Melissa on Everybody's Reviewing here

About Dear Selection Committee, by Melissa Studdard
Framed as a job application, and bounding with associative leaps and surrealist underpinnings, Dear Selection Committee is a subversive, sexy love song to an endlessly messy self and the burning world it inhabits. Full of apostrophic power, these poems shift among registers of loss, desire, and joy as they wrestle with issues such as climate change, addiction, modern distractions, gender presentation, religious questioning, and the nature of pain. Dear Selection Committee attests that although life can feel like a bumpy cab ride to interview for a job you feel uniquely unqualified for, if you lay aside the anxieties of self just long enough to peer out the window, you’ll see great beauty amidst the chaos. The real work, these gorgeously strange poems assert, is not to thrust yourself like a cog into the wheel of the corporate machine but to stay receptive and connected even when it feels as if everything in and around you is going up in flames.

Below you can read two poems from the collection. 

From Dear Selection Committee

My Kind

My life’s burning.
That’s what I mean when they ask how I am and I say 
Fine. Rope-dangling, kicking-the-chair-out-from-under-me 
fine; flirting-with-blades fine; looking-for-Pallas-Athena-
in-my-pancake fine (why would she visit that twerp Telemachus 
and not me?) In my spare time, I’m building a death out of sad 
songs and leftover microwavable food. I’m building a life 
out of sad songs, good friends, and leftover microwavable food. 
It occurs to me that I may be my own soul mate. That’s how I’ve 
ended up in this body alone. But science says self is not 
so simple. I’m a mosaic of viruses, bacteria, and, likely, other 
people. All of us making decisions together. Group hug!
I am my own kind. I’ll learn to play piano. Like Hélène Grimaud,
I’ll see blue rising from the notes. I’ll be an amateur bird watcher, 
a volunteer firefighter, a gourmet chef, a great 
humanitarian. I’ll plant a prize-winning garden,
grow a pot farm. My hair is on fire. I’m running 
out of time. Maybe I’ll learn to paint. Get 
a cat or dog. Something sweet 
that likes to cuddle and poops outside the house. Something 
feral and one step from wild. Something that, 
when the moon jumps in the lake,
will jump in after, howling, in awe of the lake, 
in awe of the moon, in awe of itself and every other
disappearing thing.
My kind.

(Originally in The Normal School)

Supplies I Will Require Before Seriously Considering the Job


horse that says it’s a unicorn


guitars tuned to the melancholy of my childhood


ceremonial washing jugs whose bellies have held water turned into wine


rocks that were made into pets and given names


treatise over the impact of human behavior on the mental health of angels


dandelion puffs that were chased by leopard cubs


exegeses interpreting the lamplight scrawled across my boyfriend’s body


polka dots exiled for being too exciting for their fabric


Bohemian waxwings willing to serve as proxies for all meetings before 11 a.m.


imaginary tea sets used in underwater tea parties


email filter that bounces back any message trying to assign a task


compasses set to the longing of Odysseus’ nostalgia


saint reincarnated into a valentine and slipped beneath my bedroom door


sleepwalking tambourines bound with lust-colored ribbons


strands of hair from a woman who believes the horse

 (Originally in Life and Legends)


Friday 27 May 2022

Louisa Treger, "Madwoman"

Louisa Treger has a PhD in English from University College London, where she focused on early-twentieth-century women’s writing and was awarded the West Scholarship ‘for distinguished work in the study of language and literature.’ She is the author of The Lodger and The Dragon Lady, and lives in London. Her new novel is Madwoman. Her website is here


About Madwoman

Madwoman, Louisa Treger’s third novel, is a dark, turn-of-the-century tale about the world’s first female investigative journalist, Nellie Bly. Desperate to prove her worth as a serious reporter in New York, she comes up with a dangerous plan – to fake madness and have herself committed to the asylum on Blackwell’s Island. She will go where no sane woman has voluntarily gone before, and she will come back with a story like no other. Madwoman tells the true story of a compelling historical figure and the institutions – from America’s newsrooms to its mental hospitals – she fought to make better for women everywhere.

From Madwoman, by Louisa Treger



The barge pulled away from shore, pitching and rolling. Some of the patients were whimpering or crying out, but the guards barked at them to shut up. There was a girl strapped to the bunk, weeping and shaking, her face smeared with snot and tears. Through her short, fair hair, raw patches gleamed on her scalp. Nellie got up to comfort her, but a hard-faced guard shoved her back onto the bench. No one else tried to help. Eventually, the girl’s sobs turned to sniffles and she fell silent, her eyes strained wide with fear. Nellie opened her mouth to speak to her, but caught the guard’s eye and let the words fall silent. The air in the cabin filled with stale breath.

She glued herself to the grimy porthole and saw schooners on the waterfront, gulls swooping low over the dark brown river that billowed and seethed like tea coming to the boil. Soon a handful of large buildings appeared on the horizon, strung out in a line on a long, narrow strip of land. The boat headed toward them and docked, bumping and creaking against the tires that lined the wharf. The women were led up a plank to shore. They stood quietly now; they seemed cowed, stunned.

Nellie breathed air deep into her lungs, trying to get a hold of herself. It was cool and fresh, smelling of damp earth. She could hear the staccato call of a thrush and, in the distance, crows were cawing. Coming from Manhattan, it was a relief to hear birds, to see all the green space, but they weren’t given long to enjoy it. New guards began herding them into an ambulance.

‘Welcome to Blackwell’s Island,’ one of them said. He cleared his throat and spat. ‘Once you get in here, you’ll never get out.’

Panic exploded in Nellie, turning her vision gray. She clenched and unclenched her hands, and her heart dragged at her ribcage. What on earth have I done? The Island was where they shipped criminals, paupers, the sick, and the insane; kept them out of the way, out of sight, so that sane, decent people didn’t need to have them on their minds.

Thursday 26 May 2022

Hannah Nicklin, "Writing for Games: Theory & Practice"

Hannah Nicklin, photograph by Julian Dasgupta 

Hannah Nicklin is an award-winning narrative and game designer, writer, and academic who has been practising for nearly fifteen years. 

She works hard to create playful experiences that see people and make people feel seen, and also argues for making games a more radical space through mentoring, advocacy, and redefining process. 

Trained as a playwright, Nicklin moved into interactive practices early on in her career and is now the CEO and studio lead at Danish indie studio Die Gute Fabrik, which most recently launched Mutazione in 2019. 

You can read a previous article by Hannah Nicklin about Mutazione and game design on Creative Writing at Leicester here. Hannah is on Twitter @hannahnicklin 

Cover by Angus Dick

About Writing for Games: Theory & Practice, by Hannah Nicklin

Writing for Games is an approachable and entry-level text for anyone interested in the craft of writing for videogames.

Focussing on the independent videogames sector, this book provides readers with a vocabulary to articulate and build their games writing practice; whether studying games or coming to games from another storytelling discipline. Writing for Games offers resources for communication, collaboration, reflection, and advocacy, inviting the reader to situate their practice in a centuries-long heritage of storytelling, as well as considering the material affordances of videogames, and the practical realities of working in game development processes.

Structured into three parts, Theory considers the craft of both games and writing from a theoretical perspective, covering vocabulary for both game and story practices. Case Studies uses three case studies to explore the theory explored in Part 1. The Practical Workbook offers a series of provocations, tools and exercises that give the reader the means to refine and develop their writing, not just for now, but as a part of a life-long practice.

You can read more about Writing for Games here. Below, you can read an excerpt from the book. 

From Writing for Games: Theory & Practice

This extract is from the very beginning of the book, where Hannah Nicklin lays out some useful first principles; this part is from pp.23-25 of the book, where she differentiates writing from narrative design, consider the layers of writing in a game and discuss why vocabulary in talking about the craft of both writing and games is vital for its practice. 

The Material Context of Games

The next few chapters will cover a variety of essential vocabulary in specific areas: from games studio structures, to story structure, and story components. But before we run the gamut, I wish to lay down one more set of foundations about storytelling in games.

Here’s the most important thing: Games are really hard to make.[1]

Theatre is also hard to make; dance, ceramics, quilt making, all of it. I know. All media and art forms have their own challenges, but when you make a film, sure, you have to write a script and hire actors, and direct and film and edit. But you don’t also have to invent gravity, and build the actors as puppets made out of flesh and bone and weird perspectives.

That you have to define ‘up’ and ‘down’ and ‘sky’ and ‘ground’ is also part of the joy and inventive potential of games, but please believe me when I say the defining thing about game development is that it is a goddamn miracle if any game functions at all, and still if it functions on most computers, most of the time.

It can take half a year for a team to resource, design, implement, and fix the display of italics in onscreen text (this happened to me). It can take several months to build the tools for defining the logic of, implementing, and displaying a character’s dialogue in the right format. A large part of game development is project planning, MVP[2], and communicating with others about what’s needed, what’s a priority, and when a change is being made – so that other departments can understand how it will have a knock-on effect.

The material context of writing and storytelling in games is that you rarely work alone – especially as a writer – and the practice of writing will as much be about communication, priorities, project planning, spreadsheets, and resources, as often as it’s about being able to actually do it.

Then you face the huge lack of common vocabulary for what we mean when we talk about story in games.

Narrative Design Is Not Writing and Vice Versa

Writing is not narrative design, and narrative design is not writing. One of the common misconceptions in videogames around storytelling is that narrative designers can write and vice versa. Sometimes you get people who do both (often you will be expected to be a dual narrative designer / writer in a small indie development team), but this problem is endemic and often means that the actual brief or recruitment copy for a piece of work isn’t clear about what’s wanted. And it’s even possible the people writing the job description don’t know what they need.

So, let’s set this out as clearly as possible; in this book, these are our definitions:

  • Narrative design is the practice of game design with story at its heart. You are the advocate for the story in the design of the game. Narrative is (and we will dig down more into this in the next chapter) the design of the telling of a story. Not just a plot in a world with characters, but also the decisions around in what order the plot is communicated, how characters and the environment build together, structure, pacing, choice design, voice, perspective, role-play relationships, UI, the key decisions around tools, player agency, and much else. It is storytelling through design.
  • Writing is the building of characters, worlds, plot, structure pacing, cadence, dialogue, UI text, choice text, exposition, characterisation, character journeys, format, genre, and medial expressivity (i.e. What is this sentence to be read as? Is it a line of dialogue like in a script, a book, for speaking, a comic?). It is storytelling through words.

Even if you are practising – or wish to practise – in both of these areas, separating them is extremely useful, as you will develop both strands through different processes, and both will provide different solutions to a challenge or problem. It’s also useful to be able to articulate the difference to others. If you’re hired as a narrative designer, but the team that hires you isn’t willing to include you in design discussions or consider design proposals from you, then you are not actually being given the means to do your job. If you’re hired as a writer, but someone is suddenly asking you to co-design a dialogue system, it can be empowering to assess that as a narrative design task and ask for more resources (money, time, or hiring a collaborator) to do so.

The Different Layers of Writing in a Game

Not all writing is storytelling. Some writing will be a part of communicating how the player should and can interact with the interfaces and mechanics of a game. One affordance of writing for games is focusing on the utility of your writing. A game may need several levels of ‘voice’ or ‘register,’ from the ‘creative’ register of the story and its characters, to the register of tutorial instructions, UI, inventory descriptions, and quest reminders. Sometimes they combine in conventions such as inner monologue – in many games, characters will converse naturalistically in all manners except that the player character will also talk out loud to themselves in an extremely unnaturalistic manner in order to give the player hints and reminders. And the writing of a UI text is not a simple thing – it is a sub-discipline which also works with genre and formal conventions.

When writing for a game you will need to think about how these registers intersect. Perhaps you’re writing for a game where the characters individually don’t have distinguishable voices because the game voice is the important thing (this is most common in jokey or internet- humour-driven games, where the voice of the game is referential, and characters frequently break the fourth wall). And don’t forget – your choices (if offered) will have a register too! Does the game UI describe the choices, or does a narrator in the world offer them or does the character? Following is one choice expressed in three different kinds of ‘voices’:

  • Move on.
  • Priya wants to leave.
  • Priya: Come on, let’s go.

(More on choice voice, later.)

You also need to think about how the writing in the game sits in the layer of importance for the player. Are they front and centre (in a story-driven game), are they holding two parts together (cutscene writing), or are they part of the supporting framework (a small dialogue encounter in a puzzle-driven game, or ‘barks’[3] in a battle)?

For example, games with puzzles can be simplistically split into story-driven and puzzle- driven. In the former, all the puzzles should move the character or the story forwards; in the latter, the joy should centre on a puzzle well-solved, and the writing is more focused on a supportive background for the puzzle-solving. Neither of these approaches are inherently better – instead consider the effect you want to have and how the working with the affordances of your game can help you achieve it ...

Why Is Vocabulary Important?

The key thing about working in games is that it’s an extremely broad interdisciplinary practice, so it will be common for you to need to communicate with people with widely different training and media / artform backgrounds from you. Understanding the vocabulary of game development will help you understand what kind of background or foundation from which a person might be speaking to you. This will be the subject of Chapter 2.

The act of learning the basic building blocks of storytelling vocabulary benefits everyone; if you are already a game developer without story expertise, it will allow you to understand the storytellers you communicate with. If you are someone who wants to tell stories with games, understanding the specificities of storytelling deeply enough to communicate them clearly will help you fight for the story in the design meeting, development process, and the game’s production. This will be the subject for Chapters 3 and 4 – the first is a grounding in story structure ideas, and the second a run through key story components.

As a writer it’s vital to be able to articulate your practice to yourself and your peers – not only does it help you practise your craft more effectively, but it also allows you to better critique (crit)[4] other works, and therefore understand how they have their effects, and in turn help you better understand how you can learn from them.


[1] ‘Nobody told me when you make a video game you have to make the whole thing’ (Tweet by Ben Esposito, 2018).

[2] Minimum viable product: part of the Agile practice of design. The idea is to make the design idea, tool, or piece of gameplay in its most minimally functional way, and then to test or play it in order to know in which direction to improve and build on it.

[3] Barks: One-off lines which reinforce character and the drama of a moment, delivered not as part of conversation, but to liven up travel, battle, or the exploration of an open world area.

[4] I set out a detailed proposal for a critical methodology in Part III of the book, but for now we can loosely define ‘crit’ as the practice of analysing and understanding how a work uses its affordances to achieve its intended effects.

Wednesday 25 May 2022

On Running a Literary Festival

By Charlie Hill 

What are literary festivals for? What do they do, and why? Are they a fundamentally democratic element of our literary culture, or an adjunct to the marketing departments of corporations? Do they exist to perpetuate or challenge intellectual conformity? Can any of them be all things?

In 2011 I decided to try to find out, and established one of my own. The PowWow Festival of Writing was set up by me and Andy Killeen. We had each just published our first novel, respectively an historical comedy set in 11th-century Baghdad and a fictionalised account of the anti-road building and free party protests of the 1990s. Our books were with small publishers, Dedalus Books and Indigo Dreams Press, and they had yet to reach the bestseller lists. We were interested in creating an event that was an ethical antidote to the commodification of literature, one that celebrated the overlooked and also provided practical support for those who aspired to be disregarded; it was also an attempt to fill the restless emptiness that follows publication of a novel.

The event took place in the back garden of the south Birmingham pub where Andy ran a writers’ group. Its name presented itself to us as if on a gold-tasselled cushion (Prince of Wales Writers on Writing – or PowWow) but we had no money, few contacts in the biz and no experience of organising anything more complicated than a barbeque. The first programme then, was an ‘organic’ affair. Andy knew William Gallagher, who had written radio scripts for Dr Who, a fella from The Fall, and SF Said, a mate from Cambridge who had just won an award for a children’s novel; I met the poet Charlie Jordan at a party, and suggested for the role of host Dan Holloway, a Facebook friend and the author of evie and guy, a wordless novel consisting of ‘the dates, times and duration in seconds (bracketed where the act was interrupted or unclimactic) of every act of masturbation in two lives.’ 

Given that there wasn’t too much content that was actually related to literature, we decided to sell the festival as a ‘Literary Cabaret’ and padded it with a capoeira demonstration and a DJ set. The centrepiece, though, was a writing competition. For this, competitors would produce a number of stories throughout the day that would be judged, live on stage, by me and Andy. It was an equivocal success. In devising the format, I had forgotten that I would be drinking steadily over the course of the do, a circumstance that led to a profound deterioration of my critical faculties. Andy’s contributions were conscientious but by the time we reached the final three stories, my slurred pronouncements were met with incredulity and abuse. 

Despite this, we decided the festival had enough going for it to do it all again the following year. With a few caveats. If the ‘informality’ of our first effort had established our unique selling point, it was clear that we would be ill-advised to attempt to replicate it. It was unthinkable, for example, that we could hold another event without paying either ourselves or our guests. We established an organising committee, drawn from Andy’s writing group, and applied for funding from the Arts Council. This was an interesting process. Although – or perhaps because – we were committed to the principles of ‘community’ and ‘diversity,’ it dismayed me to have to include the words in every other line of our proposal. Still. We got the money we asked for. We also devoted similar attention to the make-up of the programme. Although we were mindful of the need to feature better-known guests, we were keen to avoid inviting anyone too ‘obvious’ and plumped instead for a bestselling writer of crime fiction whose work could also lay claim to that most nebulous of characteristics – literary merit. Unfortunately, four days before they were due to headline our second festival, they found themselves in a little local difficulty, involving pseudonymous praise of their own work - and criticism of others - and bailed.

Me and Andy had no contingency for a turn-up like this. Faced with the possibility of a festival with no headliner – and the logistical mire of refunds – we considered joining our erstwhile star name in retiring to a darkened room. But, true to the DIY spirit that had created the festival in the first place, we hung on and hoped something would turn up. Fortunately, it did. That year’s Booker Prize shortlist had just been announced and on it was Alison Moore’s small but perfectly formed The Lighthouse. I’d read it and loved it, so chanced an email to Salt, her publisher. With barely five days to go, the arrangements were made and we had a more than adequate replacement for our rogueish no-show. 

I’d like to think that Salt saw us as a kindred outfit operating outside the literary establishment. It was perhaps more likely that our timing was accidentally impeccable. Either way, buoyed by our last-minute extrication from a tricky situation, hubris took hold. The next year, in looking to increase our private sector sponsorship, we ditched the coffee shops and vintage toy sellers who had previously backed us and approached a banking and wealth management company. The question of their suitability for an operation as ethically-minded as ours was resolved by Googling ‘are they ethical?’ and spending a full minute on analysing the results (I mean they seemed fine). We also expanded. The Saturday before Sunday’s do we put on workshops at a venue down the road from the Prince. On the day of the event itself we offered merchandise – tote bags and tee shirts – and arranged for each session to be filmed by students of Birmingham City University. All of which served to simultaneously impress and confuse that year’s guests – who included M. John Harrison, Katy Guest and Danuta Kean – for whom the hoopla might have been at odds with the size of the operation.

Because that year’s festival was a bust. The workshops didn’t fly. No-one wanted to Meet the Editor. A quick headcount on the day of the festival proper revealed more paying punters than merch-sellers and film crew and merchant bankers - but only just. Again, we learned. The next year, we were back down to a day and binned the fripperies. 

We continued for another four years. The last PowWow Festival of Writing took place in 2017. I like to think that we gave many writers ideas and a good day out. We were proud to feature guests from communities traditionally under-represented in mainstream publishing. With the exception of our third year, our audiences regularly hovered around the hundred mark. Personal highlights included Alex Wheatle, Natalie Haynes and the publication of an anthology put together from the contributions of guests. Joanne Harris – who we bagged after three years of invites – was a no-bullshit joy. Likewise Kit de Waal. Arifa Akbar was fascinating. Nicholas Royle indulged his affinity for the derive, refused the offer of a bus or cab from town and walked to us instead through the derelict warehouses, the abattoirs and the curry houses of Brum’s unfamiliar inner-city; the screen-writer Andrew Davies asked for payment with a bottle of single malt. Stewart Home read standing on his head and Elizabeth Jane-Burnett was as mesmerising as ever.

The festival’s demise though, was inevitable. In the six years of its existence, the event had outgrown its original model, in relation to both budget and venue and we had neither will nor desire to move premises or apply for the necessary jump in funding. What had begun – at least in part – as a project that might complement our writing now required too much unremunerated time and attention. For all of our comparative pulling power – our appearance fees were a source of much pride – a significant number of London-based agents and PR people were unwilling or unable to sell to their charges a trip to a Birmingham pub. After the boss of our sponsor, the investment company – a man of Quaker sympathies – turned up one year to find me with a pint on the go (ironically enough my first, at 6pm), he pulled the plug. 

There was also the management of the Prince’s daytime drinkers to consider. The festival took place in a marquee, but the pub’s garden was otherwise open as usual. Over the course of a long Sunday afternoon, the regulars could get as lairy as a short story judge, which had implications for the ‘Customer Experience’ of the festival crowd. The needs of the two groups weren’t reconcilable. Even if there was only ever going to be one winner from the encounter between Joanne Harris and the fella in the Villa shirt, who wandered into the marquee and enquired sneeringly of her ‘Am I supposed to know who you are?’ 

About the author
Charlie Hill is the former Director of the PowWow LitFest. His most recent publication is a memoir - I Don't Want to go to the Taj Mahal - and he has an historical novel and a collection of short stories in the pipeline. His website is here.

Tuesday 24 May 2022

David Tregarthen, "Come the Dark Night"


David Tregarthen is a writer, singer, accompanist, and tutor. He grew up in the North of England, studied at Oxford (where his novel Come the Dark Night is set), then worked for several years as an academic in the Midlands. In the past year he's taken some time out to travel (where the global pandemic allowed) and pursue his other interests. As a creative writer, he's interested in identity, truth, nuanced queer characters, and what (if anything) makes psychopaths different from the rest of us. Come the Dark Night is his first novel and is published by Bloodhound Books. He can be found on Twitter @davidtregarthen

About Come the Dark Night, by David Tregarthen

In this sophisticated novel of suspense, a killer with a taste for literature lurks in the shadows of Oxford University ...

After a student is found decapitated in the cupola of the Sheldonian Theatre and a cryptic note in an unknown language is discovered, DS Kate Stewart and her partner turn to medievalist Dr. Jonathan Reynolds. He identifies the note as a passage from Beowulf and explains that the murder replicates a killing in the epic poem.

Then a second, equally grisly murder escalates the situation. The victim is Tom, Jonathan’s former student and stalker. Horrified, Jonathan identifies the crime’s literary connection to another early English poem. Is the killer obsessed with medieval times—or with Jonathan? When another death suggests that a serial killer is working his way through the English Literature syllabus, both the police and the scholar are drawn into a baffling mystery ...

From Come the Dark Night

Oxford, 1998, First Week in Trinity

I look down from my vantage point high above the city, scent the early morning air and smile. It will be another of those sultry days that spring borrows from summer. On such a day, the air holds out the promise of a time beyond the teaching term that has just grudgingly begun; beyond the testing, fraught, close-knit days of Finals; beyond even those precious weeks of quiet libraries where dust motes dance as scholars snooze. On such a day, the illusory prospect of drifting on a peaceful river or browsing in bookshops along deserted lanes has not yet been shattered by the squalid reality of building works and the blind hunger of the omnipresent crowds. And on this day it is that I – or rather my Work – shall be seen.

I walk back across the wooden floor, carefully lift and place the head to one side, then take a moment to rest from my labours. As the young April sun rises over Oxford’s spires and bell towers, my city is neither dreaming nor sleeping. Whilst darkness and quietude still prevailed – though I, of course, was busy about my Work – three dozen college porters waited patiently within the establishments they guard. Now, as the bells of Tom Tower and a hundred churches strike their conflicting chimes, these men begin to unlock the smaller wickets set inside the great iron-studded timber gateways. The more famous – or cupidinous – colleges ‘fling wide their gates,’ knowing an influx of tourists waits to make its less than royal way. Agog to consume cultural capital, the sheep will stream inexorably in from early morning until dusk: from the grubby ring road and coach parks and railway station. Within each college, gardeners are doubtless hard at work weeding borders and mowing precious lawns still thirsty for the month’s promised ‘shoures soote.’ Scouts and bedders begin to scrub porcelain and polish stainless steel – or so I imagine. I do not know the truth of it. Perhaps they are instead counting out linen for distribution amongst the students in their charge – most of them still dead to the world, it’s safe to assume, bins outside their rooms to guard against unwanted intrusion. Excluded here, of course, the chasers of Firsts already annotating texts in quiet carpeted libraries, the earnest chapelgoers kneeling in prayer, and those Lycra-clad rowers quick-stepping it to the cold river. I see one now, cycling along the pavement, weaving between concrete bollards, almost close enough to … but, no, I must not allow myself to be distracted.

I hammer in the spike, muffling the sound of metal on iron with his scarf, then rest again. As I wait, silent and unseen, elsewhere cheerful shouts, ribald laughter, rise from the meat stalls in the Covered Market and the kitchens they stock. Along Catte Street and Cornmarket, Broad Street and the High, the thin light shines down alike on saints peering myopically from their niches in the church towers, and sinners, scurrying back from strange beds, rumpled-black-jacketed and pallid-faced. Loathsome in their petty deceit. Ants, all of them, waiting for one divine foot to mash them into the cobbles of Radcliffe Square.

My breath returns and I begin to pack away my tools. Nearby, the Old Bodleian’s great quadrangle lies yet hushed, as lonely staff dribble their way past old Pembroke’s statue. He stands now in shadow, impassively watching over the doorways with their neatly painted homage to the Old Schools, as he has done since his translocation in the Year of Our Lord 1723. Nearby, the sun’s warming rays slide tentatively up the wall of the Sheldonian Theatre, past its encircling grotesques with their gaping mouths, till they reach the cupola’s arched windows and pale-green dome, high above the waking city. My mouth waters. Soon and very soon.

Wednesday 18 May 2022

Zoe Brooks, "Fool's Paradise"

After living in London for fifteen years Zoe Brooks returned to her native Gloucestershire to write and grow vegetables. Her collection Owl Unbound was published by Indigo Dreams in 2020. Her long poem for voices Fool’s Paradise is published by Black Eyes Publishing in May 2022. 

For fifteen years, Zoe divided her time between the UK and the Czech Republic, where she lived in a farmhouse under the shadow of the forest in the edge of the Sumava Mountains. Her blog Adventures in the Czech Republic recounts her time there and her love of that country. 

Zoe is a member of the management team for Cheltenham Poetry Festival. She set up and runs the Poetry Events in UK & Ireland Facebook group and enjoys performing poetry.

About Fool’s Paradise

This book-length mystical poem for voices was written following a visit to Prague immediately after the Velvet Revolution, a time which Zoe describes in her blog Adventures in the Czech Republic:

"... My friend was renewing old acquaintances and exploring business opportunities and so I just took the opportunity in her absence to explore and soak in the atmosphere, and what an atmosphere it was. It is now hard to explain what it felt like back in early 1990. I had no guidebook and instead just walked, following my instinct, often going over the same ground time and again. I was completely breathless with the beauty of the place and felt the city's history – both glorious and sad – reaching out to me from alleyways and courtyards, through the railings of the Jewish quarter and from the facades of once rich buildings. Now the visitor finds the route from Charles Bridge to Town Square lined with hawkers, shops crammed with souvenirs and frankly often tat; then it was quiet and powerful. The statues on Charles Bridge stood alone and silent, without the accompanying flash of cameras and chatter of posing tourists.

"On a number of occasions and at a number of places I came across small shrines of candles and flowers, set up to those who had been murdered by the oppressors. In Wenceslas Square there was a large makeshift memorial to Jan Palach – the student who had burnt himself to death in 1968 as a protest against the Russian suppression of the Prague Spring. Here there was a constant stream of people bringing flowers and lighting candles. It all felt hugely personal. I felt a voyeur watching the people's bowed heads. How could I comprehend what I was seeing? How could I share anything of the emotion that hung like incense in the air? And I was angered by other non-Czech visitors who stood around and took photos of it all.

"I regularly made my way back to the lights and warmth of Cafe Slavia either to meet up with my friend or to drink black Czech coffee and eat the Cafe's rich cakes. Energy and wits refreshed, I would then venture back on to the streets. I do not know whether it was the caffeine or the intensity of emotion in Prague at that time, but I increasingly found myself unable to sleep. In that heightened state I found angels everywhere – statues, in frescos, in pictures. I sensed too a presence in the air: the angels of Prague were weeping and rejoicing."

The poem that followed may have been inspired by that visit. It is not, however, about Prague. The city is in some ways a fusion of Prague and Istanbul, where Zoe had had another inspiring experience. 

The Czech friend who features in Zoe's blog and who introduced Zoe to the Czech Republic was Hannah Kodicek. Hannah, who died in April 2011, was a multi-talented writer, actor and artist. In the latter part of her life she was a story editor – working on the Oscar-winning film The Counterfeiters and advising on Danny Scheinmann's Random Acts of Heroic Love. The monoprints used in this book were created by drawing with acrylic paints on glass and were created in response to the poem. For more about Hannah's life and work see here. To see more about Fool's Paradise by Zoe Brooks, see here. Below, you can read an excerpt from the work. Please click on the individual pages to read them. 

From Fool's Paradise, by Zoe Brooks

Tuesday 17 May 2022

Laura Sygrove, "Three Poems"

Laura Sygrove is a recent graduate of the Creative Writing MA programme at the University of Leicester. She loves mythology and folklore, horror games and graphic novels, and is currently looking to break into the publishing industry. Her poem ‘IC-4593’ was published on NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory blog in 2021. You can read it here

Below, you can read three poems by Laura. 

About My Poems, by Laura Sygrove

These poems are taken from my MA Dissertation, a creative study on the effects of consumerism, and rooted in my experience working in retail and customer service. Consumerism as a system is built upon the backs of the working class – many of us actively participating in the exploitation of others through no fault of our own. Purchasing consumer goods or services in the market is unavoidable, and arguably essential in sustaining a happy and healthy lifestyle under capitalism. 

With these ideas in mind, ‘A Supermarket in Connacht,’ ‘SCO-117,’ and ‘Wood Wide Web’ were composed as short allegories, exploring themes of hospitality, greed and excess, autonomy and compassion. ‘A Supermarket in Connacht’ details the downfall of an ancient Irish warrior-Queen, whilst likening a trip to the grocery store to a kind of spiritual experience (one often encompassed by the phrase ‘retail therapy’); ‘Wood Wide Web’ conveys the idea that we, as consumers, are led, as opposed to being well-informed and in control; while ‘SCO-117’ addresses the role of machinery and technology in the workplace, displacing blame and responsibility onto inanimate objects. 

A Supermarket in Connacht

     I’m a regular at the Empyrean – 
The ollmhargadh down the road –
     I burn as six-wingéd seraphim
clothe my feet, mouth, and nose.

     Like Queen Medb, ruthless
And revered by all – 
     Risk it for that prized stud,
Stand by as men brawl;
     Raise babe and army 
As far as Donegal.

     Home is Éire – 
Where open-air
              spirits roam;
                                  Trace the gibbous moon         
by the cruel light of day,
      Waning       at the summit of Cnoc na Ré – 

I am equal to him if I possess equal fortune.

     Sip black coffee with syrups
And shop-bought jams;
     Climb man-made cairns,
Fall prey to internet scams […]

     You crazy babe, Bathsheba  – 
Indulgent in earthly riches – 
     Suckle forbidden faery fruits,
Rotting figs in pale juices;

     Pinch the flesh 
from fuzzy skins,      Savour pulp fiction 
And trashy magazines;
     Reality TV on livestream.

     Swim out from Galway Bay
to Love Island,
     Make haste and mate
Atop the Celtic moors;

     Pull me aside for a chat – 
Avenge my sister, 
Tit for tat;
     I am felled by a piece of cheese.


           Do you think I am an automaton? – a machine without feelings?
    - Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre

     I have as much sovereignty as you – 
As much jurisdiction, and as much purpose!
I am a pillar of industry – 
     What have you to contribute?

I am phenomenal 
     Qualia of consciousness;
Saunter supermarket aisles 
with Psyche, my Soul – 
     A spectre chained to an endless present.

I am fleshless, full-bodied;
Sinewy nuts and bolts – 
     A tightening in my chest 
as you tinker and tarnish.

“Do you wish to continue?”

I only accept card payments, sir – 
Do not burden me further with loose change/  
                                                                    mere pittance. 
You’re all the same!
     You push my buttons,     finger 
                                             my slots,
     Play with parts of me you shouldn’t touch.

~ please insert absolutely nothing here ~

I am the future.
     I insist:     You cannot continue.

Wood Wide Web

          Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, 
          For thereby some have entertained angels unawares.
- Hebrews 13:2

     Droplets of atropa belladonna 
on eyelids – Emerald iris          
infused with ink black,     And blinded –     
     In anguish, think of me;
Seek sanctuary.
     Surf mycorrhizal markets,
fungal fibres laced with lipids –     Sidestep symbiosis 
                                  and slurp the sugared soil.    
     Stop, thief! – Translucent tears 
do wilting flowers weep;
(Ne parles pas, parasitic ghost pipe! – 
     Undead snowdrop! – Feign sleep!)
With bated breath, and tree roots 
                                           Feel your way – 
                           Hack mycelial networks and infiltrate
the mainframe.

    Brainless mould – More bold than I – 
Traverse the showroom floor with ease – 
     Ankles swathed in yarn-like shackles;
To loosen, soak the knots in LSD.

With tentacles that sift and tend
     to self-service warehouse,     Descend – 

Confide in slime to reach the labyrinth’s end.

Thursday 12 May 2022

Nina Walker, "Blooming"

Nina Walker is a third-year student and Leicester University. She enjoys writing, rug making and Ray Bradbury’s short stories. She’s been writing poetry since she was sixteen when the only person reading it was her mum. The dream is to be published eventually. 

Nina performed the following poem at the Creative Writing Student Showcase at Literary Leicester in March, 2022. 

About the poem 'Blooming,' by Nina Walker

The following poem was inspired in part by my paternal grandmother Wendy Walker, who worked in the hosier industry that was huge in the Midlands, as well as an article I read about the disgustingly long waiting list for people in this country needing cancer treatment. Since my grandma died of cancer during 2020 the two seemed thematically close. I wanted to try and get across the sense of loss I feel when I think about my grandma and the industry she used to work in. 'Blooming' is part of a larger collection I hope to publish about England’s past and how it affects our understanding of the present, as well as how we can come to love such a deeply troubled country.


The alley behind Debenhams sells discount granny bras 
And I want to cut off my hair
Watch the threads slip down the drain
One by one

I keep reading about our collapse
Makes me sick, stomach full of all this bile
So I eat cleaner

But I still feel rotten, soft like a pear gone brown in the middle
Soft like the skin round a lump
Growing plump
In the glands in my chest
An anxious spasm

The city is not our friend
Doesn’t recall our names like a bad teacher
Fumbles with our futures like a bleeding pen
Blubbering like the lady behind Debenhams 
Or on the market 
With her cheap elastic bloomers 
When I’ve lost my job and my hair
I hope she’s the only millionaire 

Something about these people with their day jobs and money makes me feel faker than tan.
I can’t carve away at the pain we’re all stuck to like plump blue bottles
Can’t make work mean more than pennies counted
Can’t remove the tumours

We work till our fingers can’t pick out the stitching anymore 

Till they’ve worn us out like Primark trainers 

My grandma worked with her hands 
Just like the woman did
But a tumour took my nan and a tumour is taking the woman too
But it's not in her body
So I can’t cut it out

The tumour is barren 
Stripped us of our tools 
Left us arthritic 
So we send our projects abroad to children with quick fingers 
Blank eyes

Your nan will live
Or not
They don’t really care if she makes a living 

Never mind the back alleys and soft flesh, it’s our conscience we should be searching.
If this country was a dog I’d shoot it out of mercy.

Tuesday 10 May 2022

Jonathan Wilkins, "Utrecht Snow"

About Jonathan Wilkins, by himself

I am sixty-six. I have a gorgeous wife Annie and two beautiful sons; I love to write. I am a retired teacher, lapsed Waterstone's bookseller, and former Basketball Coach. I taught for twenty years and coached women’s basketball for over thirty years before taking up writing seriously.

Up until Covid, I regularly taught Creative Writing workshops in and around Leicester and also via zoom. I currently take notes for students with Special Needs at Leicester University.

I have always loved books and reading, but nine years at Waterstone’s nearly put paid to that!

I’ve had a work commissioned by the UK Arts Council, and had several non-fiction pieces published traditionally as well as fiction online. I have had some of my work placed in magazines and anthologies and also exhibited in art galleries, studios, museums and at Huddersfield Railway Station Waiting Room. I have my writing on various blogs. I love writing poetry.

I enjoy presenting papers at Crime Fiction conferences. It keeps my mind active through the research process and is a great way to meet new people and gain fresh ideas for writing.

As well as my Utrecht Murders Trilogy, I am writing a crime series set at the end of the Great War and into the early 1920s. 

My website is here

About Utrecht Snow, by Jonathan Wilkins

In Utrecht Snow, a crime novel initially written as my MA Creative Writing dissertation, we meet widow Caes Heda, Hoofdinspecteur at Kroonstraat police station, and his daughter Truus, a student at the local University. Caes is head of crime whilst his daughter is fed up with her studies and links up with private investigator Thijs Orman. Girls go missing from Utrecht and the police and Truus investigate kidnapping and murder. This is the first of a trilogy set in the beautiful city of Utrecht.

From Utrecht Snow

Caes Heda was normally about six foot two inches tall; but today he was hunched up against the cold and felt like a goblin, at half his normal size. He shivered yet again and breathed out the cold air, imagining it freezing on his neatly trimmed beard and moustache.

Caes could just see the Gothic Dom Bell Tower outlined against the grey morning sky. It was towering above everything, and it made him smile. Even as the snow feathered down it was still the centre of their universe. It watched over Utrecht from a height of what, over one hundred and ten metres, and could more or less be seen in Utrecht from wherever anyone stood, whatever the weather. True, it was a bit faint today, covered as it was in snow. No melting due to no heat leaving the building, the Dom was always cold, always frozen, it mirrored how he felt. Cold and alone, he just wanted to be alone. All of a sudden, Caes just didn’t fancy going to work. He just wanted some peace and quiet and to be left on his own, to wallow in his sudden misery.

Unfortunately, all his defence mechanisms didn’t stop the woman from sitting next to him - well, almost sitting on him in fact, as the bus picked up from Bleekstreet. She wedged Caes against the window and started talking to herself, or was it to him? He opened his left eye and taking a closer look, saw what it was. Dirty faux fur coat and then the sickly smell of snowy dampness and then, yes it was urine. Caes had to start breathing through his mouth to try to avoid the smell. He couldn’t get his arm away from her; he was stuck and she muttered on, words incomprehensible to him, Greek? Russian? He couldn’t tell, maybe it wasn’t a language at all; he was suddenly too tired to think. The half hour it took the bus to get to his office on Kroonstraat was a torment, where had she arrived from? He’d never seen her before on this route, though to be honest he did spend most of his journeys to work with his eyes closed.

It was such a welcome relief when she stood and got off the bus. Her smell, though, was hanging in the air. He hoped it wouldn’t hang on his clothes. The pressure on him at last relented as she moved; typical, it was also his stop. She shambled to the exit. Caes followed the smell.

He got off and found himself trailing the woman as she shuffled across the road and through the snow. Her muttering increased, talking to no one but everyone. People avoided her, even in the snow they could see her and they must have thought she was mad. She was going his way; in fact, she was going all the way. She entered the Bureau at Kroonstraat. Caes followed.

Caes Heda was Hoofdinspecteur in Utrecht. Thirty-nine and in charge of Crime at Kroonstraat Police Bureau, not committing it obviously, but tidying up after it had been committed. If he could catch them great, but he felt there was not much chance of stopping them all. It was a full-time job!

He did enjoy it, though, it was a bit like a game, but he was never sure who was winning. They had success and then the criminals had a win. They locked some up, but more and more were getting community service and prisons were closing due to lack of customers. He had always thought that saving money this way was a false economy as there seemed no deterrent anymore, but there again, he was but a simple policeman.