Monday 29 August 2022

Susan Richardson, "Where the Seals Sing"


Susan Richardson is a writer, performer and educator whose debut work of creative non-fiction, Where the Seals Sing, has just been published by William Collins. She has also written four collections of poetry, the most recent of which, Words the Turtle Taught Me, emerged from her residency with the Marine Conservation Society and was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award. In addition to her ongoing writing residency with the British Animal Studies Network, facilitated by the University of Strathclyde, she has shared her work on BBC Two and Radio 3, enjoyed a four-year stint as one of the resident poets on Radio 4’s Saturday Live and performed at festivals both nationally and internationally.

About Where the Seals Sing

Blending natural history and travel, science and shamanism, memoir and myth, Where the Seals Sing offers a deep dive into the life of the grey seal, a species by which Susan Richardson has been fascinated since childhood. On foot and by boat, she journeys round Britain's coast, discovering locations both inspiring and surprising, from barely-accessible crags and crevices to an industrial riverscape of petro-chemical and nuclear power plants. She visits the howling heart of a breeding colony, delves beneath the skin of shapeshifting selkie tales and engages, too, with the many dangers that seals face, from marine debris to toxic pollution.

As she gains greater insights into the impact of these threats, Richardson explores how we may more sensitively co-exist with another species in our increasingly denatured land. What will be the next chapter in our attitude towards these animals whose bone remains have been found in Bronze Age kitchen middens and who have swum for so many centuries through our cultural and spiritual lives?

You can see more information about Where the Seals Sing on the publisher's website here. Below, you can read an excerpt from the book. 

From Where the Seals Sing, by Susan Richardson

Chivvied along by a stonechat, wing-flicking and flitting from fence post to gorse, I sidestep down a steep incline and start to curve north. Soon the final beach will come into view, the most sheltered of the three, nestled in the lee of an outcrop, free from the force of prevailing wind and waves. First, though, my gaze, as if trapped as the incidental catch of a gillnet, is dragged back towards the sea. I count two, three, four marker buoys … and is that a fifth? No – it resolves, through binoculars, into a mottled head that slopes to a nose fringed by a quiver of whiskers. An Atlantic grey seal, an adult cow, her large, dark eyes fixed landwards.

The cries are closer here but a beach boulder greened with algae is still concealing their source. Fortunately, I’m able to veer off the coast path, thrash through brambles and hoick myself onto a ledge, over the edge of which I can hang, stomach down on rock and patchy grass, to check out the beach from an unobstructed angle.

And there it is.

White fur stained with blood and yellow fluids. Its whole body jerking with the effort of each cry.

A recently born seal pup.

Its mother, resting a few metres away, is ignoring it, her pebble-and-kelp surrounds also smeared with blood. Another few metres further on, a mob of great black-backed gulls attacks the afterbirth, pulling it out of its steak-like shape into a stringier form, gorging torn-off scarlet strands, then tug-of-warring with the remains.

The pup appears to make an attempt to move towards its mother but manages only to flop onto its side, exposing a pink inch of umbilical cord worming from its belly fur. Mother–pup bonding seems to have been neither instant nor straightforward – the cow is more focused on the gulls than her pup and whenever a yank on the afterbirth brings one of them too close, she lunges, neck stretched, teeth bared, snarling.

Friday 26 August 2022

Suzannah Evans, "Space Baby"


Suzannah Evans, photograph by Joe Horner

Suzannah Evans is a poet, Creative Writing tutor and editor based in Sheffield. Her poetry has been widely published in magazines including Magma, The Rialto, The North, Poetry Review, Butcher's Dog, Poetry Wales and The Guardian's Poem of The Week. Her debut collection Near Future was published by Nine Arches Press in November 2018. Suzannah was the winner of a Gladstone’s Library residency for this book and spent a month living and writing at the library in 2019. In 2021 she received a Northern Writers’ Award for her work-in-progress collection Space Baby, awarded by Andrew McMillan, published by Nine Arches Press in June 2022.

Cover by Ayham Jabr

About Space Baby

Space Baby, the second collection by Suzannah Evans, asks difficult questions about the Earth, its beings, and what lies ahead for them: how do we look to the future on a planet that’s burning? How do we come to terms with our grief, and what can we believe in? If the human race destroys what we have, where will we go?

In this dystopian, searching book, Evans mixes absurdity and wit with speculative, and serious themes. Here, we encounter artificial intelligence and robots that will ‘cuddle you to sleep,’ the melting permafrost and all the surprises it reveals, as well as the very first human baby born in space. Ultimately, Evans writes to acknowledge our responsibilities and interconnectedness with earth and all its lifeforms, as well as to our future generations. These are vivid, prescient poems of existence, and survival, which ask how we can still find joy on a ruined planet.

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

From Space Baby, by Suzannah Evans

That smile 

                  is yours, that frown
is mine – he’s ours
and we are changed – we pace 
gallantly across the landing 
to check on him when he cries
we lay aside our bedtime reading
we marvel at the workings 
of his tiny body
we smell faintly of rusks. 

The moors have been on fire
for weeks now, the sheep
got coughs and were evacuated
we take first-birthday photos
under a bitumen sky. He’s heavier 
every time I pick him up. 
Cement-coloured pigeons feast
urgently on the bird table
while he observes for hours.

When I take him out to play
I carry a mum-satchel packed
for all eventualities. It bashes
at my hip when I try to walk anywhere.
I change his nappy on a park bench
and people walking cavachons
stop to tell me I’m doing it wrong. 
He rips the heads off damp daisies
pockets snail shells and pinecones

won’t let me throw any of it away.
Pamba he says Polabar, Sealine 
and as he learns their names 
they disappear forever. It’s not his fault
but the coincidence is unsettling. 
I cuddle him, he says Armuddyloo 
wetly into my neck. I give him milk
and mashed banana. Dairy farming! 
He exclaims. Food miles! 

Ash fairies from the fires 
are falling on the flowerbeds
we watch them before bedtime
as they glow in the blue-black,
scrunch up like cooling stars.
We’ve invented a game 
in which we dust the kale plants 
and carrot tops every morning.
His laugh is like the tap water
it chuckles before it gets going. 

Skip to the End

Betelgeuse looks ordinary 
up on Orion’s shoulder 
as I walk home with shopping bags 
that sink red dents into my hands. 

Maybe it’s already gone
supernova and down here 
we’re just making the best of it,
waiting for the visuals. 

Who doesn’t want to witness 
the last vomit of a star 
splashed lurid across the cosmos 
like an overripe peach leaking 

wet and gold on a fresh shirt.
Come on I say as if that 
can nudge the star through each decay
it has yet to experience.

I often find myself racing 
to the ends of things. 
I hate that I won’t be there  
as my friends clink and toast my life

she was a planner they’ll say 
a worrier as the sky 
above them bursts formidable 
into an oil painting on fire. 

Thursday 25 August 2022

Peter Raynard, "Manland"

Peter Raynard is a disabled, working-class poet and editor. His previous two books of poetry are Precarious (Smokestack Books), and The Combination: A Poetic Coupling of the Communist Manifesto (Culture Matters), both in 2018. He edited Proletarian Poetry: Poems of Working Class Lives, for five years, featuring over 150 contemporary poets. His second collection Manland was published by Nine Arches Press in 2022.

About Manland
Peter Raynard is a skilled observer, and these razor-sharp poems document parenthood through the lens of a stay-at-home dad, attempt to tell the truth about men and depression, study our cultural, social and medical relationships with drugs and drug-taking, and lay bare the realities of life at the sharpest edges of society. By turns frank, painful and bleakly funny, this humane and brilliant book encompasses pride and prejudices, the bonds between lads and dads, the toxic pressures of masculinity and the way illness and poverty irrevocably shape lives.

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

From Manland, by Peter Raynard

You Talking to Me?

'The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts' - Bertrand Russell.

Discussion unfolds like a front page scoop
that knits the purl of a bloody dispute.

In the fruit bowl of cups of tea couple of pints
breaking bread sat at a table on your knees

nose-to-nose problems arise when unused
to another’s game play. Such noise also flows

under arrogant bridges spanning two richly
educated rivers where the ‘they’ in ‘they said

is oracle, bulleted with ‘nothing of the kind’ 
& ‘puh-leeze’ - privileged weapons against empathy

until you’re told to wipe that political position
off your working class rowing boat. Full stops

include: ‘it’s always been a one-way street as far
as I’m concerned.’ or ‘I don’t care what you say

about smoking, my nan lived till she was ninety.
If all else fails to persuade, there’s always the ‘but still

the fine detail trump-of-all-cards not to be played
too early for fear of an undisputed spat that lets

the lions loose in your own den of antiquity. But still
if none of such floats your throat there’s always

the dulcet twist to be found in the space between
what you believe, what you say, and what the fuck

you are going to do about it. Now who wants a fight?

Tuesday 16 August 2022

Joe Orton Creative Writing Competition 2022: The Results

The School of Arts at the University of Leicester runs an annual Joe Orton Creative Writing Competition that invites A-Level students to write an Edna Welthorpe letter. "Edna Welthorpe" was the persona that Orton invented to embody the values he abjured - middle-class, middlebrow, conservative. Through Edna's letters of complaint (or praise), Orton mocks social and sexual convention. 

The Joe Orton Creative Writing Competition is funded by a kind donation from Dame Vivienne Westwood. It runs annually. 

You can read the winning, runner-up and highly commended letters, by Alex Lee, Danny Stringer and Miriam Waters respectively, here

Below, Alex and Danny talk about their writing processes, their experiences of writing Edna Welthorpe (Mrs) letters, and their success in the Joe Orton Creative Writing Competition 2021. Congratulations to all the winners!

Winner: Alex Lee, Hill Road Sixth Form College, Cambridge

I first heard about the Enda Welthorpe competition when my Sixth Form English department emailed us all about it. I looked it up and really liked the style of Joe Orton’s letters as the high-strung Mrs Welthorpe. I also write comedy sketches in my spare time, so writing my own letter sounded like a lot of fun. I started by thinking of something she could misinterpret and decided upon Halloween Trick or Treating. Being a fairly recent tradition, I thought it would be exactly the kind of thing Mrs Welthorpe would have missed and would disapprove of should she discover it. Also, people dressed as demons demanding sweets would be quite frightening if you had no idea what was going on, setting her at odds with the “youths” involved and adding a subtext of generational conflict. Having the weirdness of Trick or Treating examined from an outsider’s perspective and a general comic misunderstanding also adds a humorous tone to the letter (I hope).

Reading Joe Orton’s letters, the character of Mrs Welthorpe jumped off the page, so I found capturing her voice quite easy, and the letter almost wrote itself. I really loved coming up with phrases that hyperbolised the events as much as possible to embody Mrs Welthorpe’s formal disdain of “today’s youth.” The hardest part was condensing what I wrote into 200 words, and I really appreciated Joe Orton’s craftmanship in creating such a vivid characterisation in such brief pieces of writing.

I’m absolutely over the moon that my letter was chosen as the winner. I’m really glad the judges thought I’d captured the spirit of Joe Orton as I intended. And other people enjoying what I’ve written is just the best feeling I could ask for. I’m so grateful to the organisers at Leicester University for running such a brilliant competition. It was just so much fun to take part in, and I hope it continues Joe Orton’s legacy for years to come.

Runner-Up: Danny Stringer, Reigate College Surrey

My first experience with Joe Orton was reading his diaries, which later led me to his plays. I was immediately impressed by his eye for wittily pointing out some of the blatant hypocrisies of traditional English society. He has been compared to Oscar Wilde for that reason, who like Orton has sometimes had the greatness of his works dismissed by some ugly trivialities.

Entering the competition, I remembered the rebellious gall of the Edna Welthorpe letters and was excited to adopt her voice as my own. Edna, Orton’s mouthpiece, hilariously exposed the non-sensical element of prejudice. When I wrote my letter directed to Hellmann's mayonnaise, Edna is infuriated by a new recipe that she alleges is the product of a declining society, one straying from the traditional norms that she is accustomed to. I chose mayonnaise because it is ordinary, traditional, and inoffensive. This new recipe is unpalatably spicy to Edna, and she believes it to be an affront to her extremely British taste-buds due to her obvious xenophobia. Orton used Edna to satirize a world unwilling to change its rigid rule book. As a queer person, I have been made uncomfortable in situations with people who suppose that society is headed downhill due to people like me. But what I admire about Orton, also queer, was that he realized his status as an outsider and used it to his advantage, making himself a spectator which gave him a gift for insight. When I wrote about “our society’s repulsive dance with decadence” I was making fun of some bigots who understand that hate-speech is no longer welcomed in most mainstream circles and find other ways of indirectly expressing it. “Decadence” is a nod to queer people, though Edna wouldn’t overtly say it.

I enjoyed being able to steal Orton’s iconic character for a moment and tried hard to make her seem as insane as possible. I found more and more as I wrote it that a lot of hysteria comes from people being afraid of change. Though going back a few steps is inevitable, arguably progression is even more so.

Monday 15 August 2022

Sarah James, "Ten Lines or More Than Just Love Notes"

Sarah James is a prize-winning poet, fiction writer, journalist and photographer, also published as Sarah Leavesley. Her poetry has featured in the Guardian, Financial Times and Poems of the Decade 2011-2020: An Anthology of the Forward Books of Poetry 2011-2020, as well as in a cafĂ© mural, on the BBC, on buses and in the Blackpool Illuminations. She is the author of eight poetry titles, an Arts Council England-funded multimedia hypertext poetry narrative > Room, two novellas and a touring poetry-play. Her pamphlet Ten Lines or More Than Just Love Notes (Loughborough University, 2022) won the 2020 Overton Poetry Prize. Winner of the Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine 2020, the manuscript for Sarah’s latest collection Blood Sugar, Sex, Magic (Verve Poetry Press 2022) won the CP Aware Award Prize for Poetry 2021. In her spare time, Sarah is a keen walker, cyclist and swimmer, especially enjoying nature outdoors. Meanwhile, her spare room is home to V. Press, publishing award-winning poetry and flash fiction. Her website is here.

About Ten Lines or More Than Just Love Notes, by Sarah James

Ten Lines or More Than Just Love Notes (Loughborough University, 2022) looks at love and loss – of a romantic kind, between parents and children, and in nature. It is also an exploration of the poetic range possible within a constraint of ten lines of free verse, and won the 2020 Overton Poetry Prize.

You can see more information about the pamphlet here. Below, you can read two sample poems from the collection. 

From Ten Lines or More Than Just Love Notes

"On the eyelid of the North"

          A response to Dylan Thomas’s "A Dream of Winter"

The dusk lake is full of flitting shadows and next winter’s riddles.
For now, a couple idle, breathing in the last drip of summer light.
Their hand-in-hand stroll slips under the water’s dark meniscus.
Untarred, they linger in silence, not yet knowing their time has split
like an overripe peach dropped from beyond tree-height.

Time does split. Through love, fruit, ice. No mouths gulping
at softly rippled surfaces. The silver flicker of fishtails,
disappearing. And polar landscapes melting. Old seasons
dream a past that will heal the future. The lake’s lens
fills with night; pipistrelles empty out their song.

An earlier version of this poem was previously published in Northern Poetry Library’s Poem of the North.


At depth, I finally open my eyes
and realise how much light
floats below the broken surface.

Encased in the water’s glass,
I glow like a strong filament
in a liquid lamp-bulb.

Here, resistance doesn’t jolt.
Anything could pass through me
and sparkle, even the sharp shock

of existing without him.

Monday 8 August 2022

Jackie Wills, "On Poetry: Reading, Writing & Working with Poems"

Jackie Wills has worked for newspapers, magazines and several universities. A former journalist, she’s also worked in business, schools, arts and community organisations, including Unilever, London Underground, Shoreham Airport, the Surrey Hills, the London Symphony Orchestra and Aldeburgh Poetry Festival. She has been a Royal Literary Fund Fellow and run reading groups.

Over three decades, Wills has organised live poetry events and mentored many emerging writers, consolidating her experience in The Workshop Handbook for Writers (Arc, 2016). Her poems feature in several anthologies including Writing Motherhood (Seren, 2017) and Poems of the Decade: An Anthology of the Forward Books of Poetry (Forward Arts Foundation, 2015). Wills has collaborated over many years with visual artist Jane Fordham.

About On Poetry: Reading, Writing & Working with Poems, by Jackie Wills

We begin with a drive to write something that’s never been said before, to protest, to offload, to challenge or catch the zeitgeist. We imagine we write like the poets we admire. Slowly we learn the craft, understanding eventually that a writer’s indentured for life.

Drawing on decades of experience as a poet and tutor, this compelling book is part hands-on guide and part reflection on ways that poetry can make a difference to how we live. It is also a survey of many varied and inspirational writers, especially women poets, especially from the end of the twentieth century. Jackie Wills is herself a brilliantly insightful poets; and, as the sections on writing workshops show, she is also an outstanding teacher. The final section of this unique book offers starting points and resources that will prove essential for new and experienced poets alike.

You can see more details about On Poetry on the publisher's website here. Below, you can read a short excerpt from the Introduction. 

From On Poetry

In the decade I was a mother with young children I bought a calendar with a quote from a poem for each of the 365 days to come. Sometimes reading a couple of lines was about all I could manage but it meant that in the middle of making breakfast, finding shoes under the sofa, combing hair and packing up lunches, I’d hear Emily Dickinson speaking to me from another century and she’d set off a line of thought that walked with me up the hill and down to their primary school. I was juggling writing with earning a living and bringing up children, was often exhausted, but even so, those lines attached to dates were reminders of how lucky I was, and still am, to have the means to read, write, publish. In the old-fashioned way, I stuck some into an exercise book and my homemade anthology lives on a shelf next to my desk holding its pinpricks of thought.

For more than 20 years I’ve sat with groups of people at different stages of their writing lives, experiencing the liberation of metaphor – a child realising they can find words for the other worlds in their head, a man or woman released from the constraints of caring, illness or addiction, from fear of the past and the future, from the demands of work, for an hour or so by listening to a poem and writing their own. Poetry allowed me to do this. And when I read for myself, sometimes flicking through an anthology, sometimes concentrating on a collection for a book group, I am in awe of human invention.

When I began to earn a living running writing workshops, this work kept me reading widely, looking for new poets or poems to use as examples. It focused me on form, on what worked in a poem and it helped me understand how we use the tools of metaphor and language. I used model poems in writing exercises because a mechanic learns to put an engine together by taking it apart. I remembered a big old engine from my Morris Traveller suspended out of its rightful place when the head gasket blew. A poem has to be oily and heavy too. When I embarked on this work, though, I realised how little I’d read. I’ve come to terms with never catching up, but pledged to stretch as a reader. It’s humbling to face this truth about yourself, that however much you think you’ve read, it’s not enough. The flipside is to enjoy the many different ways people express the world, and to accept that there’s some writing you’ll get on with and some you’ll dislike.

Friday 5 August 2022

Kim Moore, "What the Trumpet Taught Me"


Kim Moore, photograph by Lorna Elizabeth

Kim Moore‘s first full length collection The Art of Falling was published by Seren in April 2015 and won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. She won a New Writing North Award in 2014, an Eric Gregory Award in 2011 and the Geoffrey Dearmer Prize in 2012. Kim was one of the judges in the 2018 National Poetry Competition, along with Kei Miller and Mark Waldron and a judge for the 2020 Forward Prizes.

Her first pamphlet If We Could Speak Like Wolves was a winner in The Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition, judged by Carol Ann Duffy. If We Could Speak Like Wolves was chosen as an Independent Book of the Year in 2012 and was shortlisted for the Michael Marks Pamphlet Award and the Lakeland Book of the Year Award. Kim’s latest full length collection is All the Men I Never Married (Seren, 2021). 

Kim is originally from Leicester. Her website is here

About What the Trumpet Taught Me, by Kim Moore 

Award-winning poet Kim Moore studied music and was a trumpet teacher for several years. What the Trumpet Taught Me is a collection of vivid and immediate snapshots, from first lessons to music college, and from teaching the trumpet in schools and running a brass band, right through to playing in working men’s clubs in a ten-piece soul band.

Meditative and often funny, these short prose pieces are always open to experience and clear-eyed about the vagaries of class-prejudice and the intricacies of gender in a predominantly male world. The trumpet is the central character that we always return to as we are asked to consider the pivotal role of music in both an individual and social history.

What the Trumpet Taught Me features watercolour illustrations by Emma Burleigh.

From What the Trumpet Taught Me

My parents take us to a brass band, recommended by my new brass teacher, Mr P, as a place we can get an instrument for free. I ask for a cornet, after watching a young girl playing one with a pearl-like sheen. My sister is given a tenor horn. The conductor, who says we can call him by his first name, W, tells us to join in with the rehearsal, though we cannot read music. I’m told to sit next to a girl with a fox-like face.

I don’t understand why the music in front of me has numbers above each note, rather than letters. I don’t understand that the numbers correspond to the valves I should be pressing down. I don’t even know they are called valves. I’m happily playing along, pressing the valves whenever I feel like it. I don’t know a conductor can hear one person playing a wrong note, even when there are thirty other people playing. Eventually, when I find this out, it seems as if it’s a superpower, and one I’ll never possess.

W is an elderly man with bone-white hair. He waves his arms, urging us onward. Although it doesn’t seem as if anybody is looking at him, or noticing what he’s doing, I understand he is important, that the weather of the room starts and finishes with him. 

Wednesday 3 August 2022

Peter Kalu, "One Drop"


Pete Kalu writes crime fiction, scifi and YA novels. He also pens short stories in styles ranging from realist to surreal to the carnivalesque. Until recently, he ran a carnival band called Moko Jumbies. More on his website here and on Twitter @peterkalu and Instagram @petekalu.

About One Drop, by Peter Kalu

One Drop is  Malcolm X meets George Orwell: a dystopian novel that looks through eyes of two black teenagers – Axel and Dune – at what might happen if demagogues gained power and used technology to crush resistance. In war-torn Britain, inseparable Black Radicals Axel and Dune are arrested. With SIMs implanted in their heads, they are placed in a prison camp for those who defy the Bloods’ white supremacist government. The SIMs start brainwashing them with the Bloods’ evil philosophy, and drones constantly monitor their movements and thoughts. 

In this living nightmare, the couple battle to keep their love alive and to break free. The odds on survival are long. Dune and Axel have very different takes on how to escape. But when things come to a head, will their love hold them together and set them free, or will it tear them apart?

Below, you can read a short sample from One Drop.


From One Drop

The London Wind

The London wind had got up and was blowing bomb smoke from the south, from far beyond the fences that held us in. The smoke was a wall, maybe half a mile high and wide enough to blow across the entire prison camp, which it did. Soon we were choking in it. I wanted to duck down but Dune said ‘No, let’s stay out.’ 

So we gauzed up our mouths and noses and sat there, squinting, letting it blow over us. It surged on, tugging in its wake everything that had been trapped within it, and lifting up new stuff. Cinder from the cooking fires, rust from burned-out cars, bits of plastic, rags, a fugitive wanted poster. The smoke storm hurtled along, carrying alarmed cries from the tent zone and the screeches of birds that were pulling away before the rolling wall of smoke. 

We held onto each other, me and Dune. It blew over fast. No longer than twenty seconds. When I slipped off my gauze, I saw Dune was twitching, the pupils of their eyes flexing, and their limbs stiffening.

 They nudged me. - I think I’m fading, the drones are gumming me again.

- You’re not. You’re right here. 

- No, I can feel it, Axel. They’re at  me. They always coming for me.

- C’mon, Dune. We lickle but we strong, right?

- Don’t joke. I know they’re gumming me. Remember me, Ax. If I’m totally gummed. 

- OK.

- Remember me, Ax.

It was one effect of the gumming. The repetition.

- You’re OK. It’s passed.

I could see it had passed. Dune was OK. Shaken but OK. 

- Am I?

- Watch.

I put Dune in a headlock the way they loved, and they laughed and pretended to struggle, squirming and bucking and laughing into my halter top all at the same time.

I didn’t know it then but soon Dune would be gone and that would be the last time I headlocked them. Right now, their legs were kicking, their hips jerking, their lips rubbing the cotton straps at my collar bone, their Afro tickling my chin. 

- No way can you wriggle free, I got moves on moves!

 gif by Akinyemi Oludele, inspired by the book