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Unlocking Creativity with Karen Dennison

How have you managed your creativity during these difficult times?

Like a lot of people, I have found it quite difficult to be creative. My attention span has definitely reduced and it’s taking me longer to do things like read a book and I think this is just fine to accept in the challenging circumstances. There is a lot to be said for just doing what feels like nothing (if you’re lucky enough to be able to) and sometimes in those quieter contemplative moments we find a creative spark. But at times when the creative spark doesn’t arrive naturally it can be good to find some prompts and in March when lockdown was announced I signed up for a Poetry School course ”I am the shape of my seams”: Out-of-Body Experience Studio with the tutor Abi Palmer. The theme seemed very appropriate to the times we were, and still are, going through and inevitably the writing was obviously affected by the mental and physical responses to lockdown but in sometimes subtle ways that helped to channel the experience through the out of body concept.

I have also created a few pieces of digital art using the amazing Procreate app. The work I do is usually figurative and I have an idea of what I want to achieve but more recently I wanted to have no preconceptions and just play with colour and abstract shape (glorified doodles really!). I dropped using the Apple pen and just used a finger to create abstract layered images and was quite pleased and surprised at some of the results. 

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You have recently been working on film poems. Can you tell me something about the process?

I’m very new to film poems and so still learning a lot. Part of the reason to look at them was because, other than during the Poetry School course, I hadn’t been writing much that was new and so I decided to revisit old poems and see if I could give them new life. I was also increasingly seeing other people’s poems in film-form and appreciating how a combination of media can enhance the poetic experience in a synergistic way. I signed up for Poetry Film Live, a set of resources put together by Chaucer Cameron and Helen Dewbery and found that extremely helpful to get me started with some very basic equipment and deciding which software to get (Wondershare Filmora) and other very useful guidance. For one film, I took some of my digital artworks as my starting point and found a poem to match and just used the still images with the feature to move across them, pan in or out or distort them or use transition effects to move from one image to another. For another film I started with a poem about an object I own (a jewellery music box that belonged to my grandmother) and made a video of the turning ballerina using my smartphone and a tripod, combining this with photos of my grandmother. For that one I also applied grainy and aging effects to some of the video clips. Unfortunately the very old wind up mechanism broke before I got a good recording of the winding sound and music and so I found some free audio online to use instead and experimented with fading music in and out at appropriate points. For recording the poems I used my phone in a quiet room and made a sleeping bag cocoon around myself to absorb sound. You can find my film poems here https://kdennison.wordpress.com/film-poems/

In terms of wellbeing, how important are the creative arts to you?

Watching films and series have been a lifeline during these strange times and a form of escapism. Reading poetry has for many years been a source of great comfort and a way to share the human experience in all its forms. I would say that it has been life-changing for me. Also, often at times of my own lack of creativity, I have appreciated being connected to the creative arts as part of Against the Grain poetry press and being able to support other poets and poetry projects. Being a part of a local poetry stanza group and helping to run it has also helped me to feel connected with a supportive community.

Of hearts

Can you tell me about your new publication from Broken Sleep Books?

It’s a pamphlet called Of Hearts and is available to order now. Most of the poems mention the heart / have a heart metaphor. I didn’t intentionally set out to write the poems in this way but in putting the collection together I realised that there was a theme running through them to do with the heart and what it represents including loss, longing and healing. I am very happy to be published by Broken Sleep Books who won this year’s Michael Marks publishers’ award and I love the blurb about the book on their web site (where you can also read two poems from the collection) –

“Karen Dennison’s Of Hearts opens with a poem about Point Nemo, the ‘spacecraft graveyard’ and furthest place from land in the ocean. The poem sets the tone for a pamphlet which explores our tiny place in a vast, overwhelming universe. It is full of crisp, lucent, technically agile and clever poems of cosmic longing. Of Hearts is a deeply enjoyable pamphlet from a poet with her eyes pressed to a telescope, searching until ‘the stars switch off’.”

I have asked you for something to inspire writing. What have you selected and why did you choose it?

I would love if the abstract image I shared would inspire some writing and think its abstract nature leaves it open to all sorts of interpretations and possibilities. I have also chosen a video I have created especially, using free videos from pexels.com and audio from YouTube audio library. I am interested in ekphrasis and the ways different art forms can respond to each other and also in how people respond differently to the same prompt. I hope this video will prompt some poems and we could choose one or two to add as an audio track. This is the video  

 

Karen’s pamphlet Of Hearts is now available to order from Broken Sleep Books. She is also the author of two full collections – The Paper House (Hedgehog Poetry Press, 2019) and Counting Rain (Indigo Dreams, 2012).

She is designer and publisher of the pamphlets Book of Sand, Blueshift and Free-fall and collaborated with Valerie Morton on the pamphlet Still Born and, as an artist, with poet Abegail Morley on her pamphlet The Memory of Water. She is co-editor of Against the Grain Poetry Press.

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Creativity and Lockdown: In Conversation with Robin Houghton

Thinking back to the first lockdown how did it affect you and your writing?

I wasn’t really writing anything new at the beginning of the year, and when the lockdown began I think I became even less motivated to write. I think I needed physical activity more – gardening, walking, cleaning and moving furniture. I struggle to write poetry unless I’m on my own in the house. As a consequence I didn’t send anything out to magazines in 2020. And I was already under a self-imposed moratorium on entering competitions.

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Have you found a distinction between your motivation to write poetry and your work on Planet Poetry?

Yes, Planet Poetry harks back to an urge I’ve had for years, to do some kind of podcast/radio thing. I looked into podcasting a couple of years ago with my friend Lucy. We used to do little ‘audio blogs’ years ago, on Foursquare (remember that?). But starting a podcast felt like a big project and I had other things on the go. Then when Peter Kenny mentioned the idea to me last summer I jumped at it. It’s great fun to do with a friend, and poetry was the obvious topic. It feels like I’m still participating in the poetry community, even though I’m not meeting people at live readings or workshopping groups, or sending work to magazines.

You published your updated version of A Guide to Getting Published in UK Poetry Magazines in November, was it helpful to have this project to work on during 2020?

Absolutely. The timing wasn’t great, because it coincided with my starting a new course (more about that below) and also the launch of Planet Poetry. But I’m so glad I did it, as I think the time was right and people were very receptive. It’s also a guilt-free way of funding my poetry book-buying, magazine subs and other small poetry costs.

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Do you see a relationship between creativity and wellbeing?

For me, certainly. I derive great pleasure both from making things, and also from making things happen. It’s very satisfying, and it’s fun! I realise I’m very lucky to have the time to do so. Usually at least half my energy goes into managing musical projects with my husband. But there hasn’t been much to do on that this last year. Hence the podcast, and then the ‘guide’. I also hand-made some little booklets for a few friends last spring, each with a little recipe, a favourite poem, some images etc. As one recipient remarked, “it’s fascinating what people get up to in lockdown!”

Your website is a fantastic tool for other poets in terms of updates, submissions advice and tips. How have you managed to motivate yourself with your own writing and submissions?

That’s kind of you to say, thank you. I’m not sure I’ve done a great job of motivating myself to write and submit this last year. The last thing I’ve wanted to write about is anything to do with Covid-19 and all the restrictions, and it’s hard to clear your head of it. There are things I could to do help myself write more, in terms of setting time aside and sticking to it, following along with daily prompts and exercises, that kind of thing. There are people doing brilliant stuff like this: Louise Tondeur, Jo Bell, Live Canon, the guys at Write & Shine. But that’s never really worked for me long term. I have to relax and not worry. It helps me more just to read fine poetry, to be honest. New poems will come when they are happy to do so!

What are you working on now?

Actually I’m mostly working on the MA in Poetry and Poetics that I began in October. Last summer, I had the idea of improving my ‘literary education’!  At first I thought about a Creative Writing MA, but after researching courses I began to realise they weren’t really what I was after. Then, amazingly, I came across this MA at the University of York, the only course of its kind in the UK. I’m doing it part-time over two years. It’s both brilliant and challenging; my first foray into academia in twenty years. I’m having to be very disciplined, reading shedloads of poetry and theory, trying to hold my own as the granny of the class. There’s no creative writing element at all, so no pressure in that way. Reading the classics has made me realise how as contemporary poets we’re all riding on the tip of the iceberg. There’s an enormous body of work holding us up. It’s very inspiring. I’ve even started writing the odd poem.

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Robin Houghton’s work appears in many magazines including Agenda, Bare Fiction, Envoi, Magma, Poetry News and The Rialto, and in numerous anthologies. Also in The Best New British and Irish Poets 2017 (Eyewear). She won the Hamish Canham Prize in 2013, the Stanza Poetry Competition in 2014 (and was runner-up in the same competition in 2016) and the New Writer Competition in 2012. Other competition placings include second in the Plough Prize, shortlisted for the Bridport Prize (2019) and longlisted in the National Poetry Competition (2019). Her pamphlet The Great Vowel Shift was published by Telltale Press, the poets’ collective she co-founded in 2014. In 2017 she self-published a handmade limited edition mini-pamphlet Foot WearAll the Relevant Gods, Robin’s third pamphlet, won the Cinnamon Press Poetry Pamphlet competition in 2017 and was published in February 2018. Her fourth pamphlet Why? And other questions (2019) was a joint winner of the 2019 Live Canon Poetry Pamphlet Competition. Robin also writes reviews and features and her  A Guide to Getting Published in UK Poetry Magazines was published by Telltale Press in 2018. She blogs at robinhoughtonpoetry.co.uk

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Unlocking creativity with Martin Figura

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How did lockdown affect your creativity? And do you see a link with wellbeing?

When the first lockdown happened, I’d been in a lockdown of sorts working on my new show Shed.  We were all rehearsed and ready to go for 3 London shows at the Marchland Season and a showcase at Norwich Arts Centre. I had other readings lined up and a couple of Dr Zeeman shows coming up. Of course, that all went and the future for both shows is at the time of writing unclear. The immediate effect was huge disappointment and a re-focusing of efforts. My next collection is a much-neglected folder haunting me, as shows have consumed me for a long time. In some ways, lockdown was a relief. I no longer have to keep 2 and at times 3 one hour shows in my head; it’s been a liberation not to use all my free head space to rehearsing and remembering. It took a while to adjust. to go for a walk with an empty head ready for thoughts and get writing single poems again.

I have also used the time to get to grips with film editing. I’m very lucky to have a playmate in Helen Ivory and we’ve had a hoot as part of the learning process and will be using what we’ve learned in a more serious way soon. The best thing we’ve done is Butchery Live, a monthly Zoom event we host https://www.facebook.com/Live-from-The-Butchery-100380041704407/ .  It’s huge fun and we’ve had readers from Canada and America as well as some of the best in Britain. Our last event was Joelle Taylor and Sean O’Brien and we have Annie Freud and Jane Burn coming up in a couple of weeks. We get to see lots of old friends as well as hearing some great poetry. It is relatively easy to run and people pay what they can, so the writers get paid. We link it to Ink, Sweat and Tears which Helen edits. We have every intention of keeping it going post Covid.

Like everyone Covid has had an impact on my well-being. We’re much luckier than most, our income is relatively untouched and are good at keeping each other company – we’re a 24/7 couple already. I am anxious for those close to me, especially Amy my daughter, who has Down’s Syndrome and is blissfully unaware of how vulnerable she is. This is a blessing, but early on when she showed symptoms overnight and scared the hell out of us, only to cheerily get stuck into her lunch a few hours later as if nothing had happened. If she did get the virus, she would not understand what was happening and we nearly lost her 25 years ago to MRSA, so this is a trigger for me back to the worst of days. The thought of that is unbearable, she usually comes to stay every three or four weeks, and I miss that so much. Hopefully, she’ll be getting her vaccine very soon. Her mum passed away in June after a long term illness, which was a huge sadness, even though long expected and kinder than we could have hoped for. Inevitably some of my writing has drawn on this and as always the process has helped me come to an understanding. The pandemic has shown itself in a number of the poems. I’m a little wary of these ones at the moment. In time I’ll be able tell which ones still resonate beyond the current situation – the world will not be short of Covid poems.

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As a poet and photographer what non-writing ways do you think poets can feed themselves with?

I can only really speak for myself, but guess other people will have similar ways. I enjoy good television a lot, I even enjoy some bad television a bit. People can be sniffy about TV, but we’re living through a golden age of television right now and there is much to enjoy and be nourished by. I love comedy;  Schitt’s Creek and Parks and Recreation have kept our spirits up, and we’ll be turning to Malcom in The Middle again for the umpteenth time. I love movies and we’d go to the Arts Cinema most weeks at least once, and we miss that. We’ve caught up on a whole load of films, new and old over recent months. We’ve watched a lot of theatre too. I miss seeing the small-scale stuff live, but to be honest I think I’ve actually enjoyed the ‘bigger stuff’ more on TV.  Our sofa is considerably more comfortable than expensive theatre seats and our lounge is not stuffy. Some though, such as Inua Ellams Barber Shop Chronicles need to be seen live.

Outside of the arts – there is always walking. We are five minutes’ walk from the 184 acres of Mousehold Heath, which has been a blessing, we walk there every day. A also swim and miss being able to drive to a lovely cold river or the sea very much. I plan to cycle to a river on Thursday to make sure I get at least one January swim in. Wild swimming is a bit like poetry I think, those that do it love it with all their hearts and are evangelical about; the other 99% of the population think we’re mad. We’ve a little old caravan on the East Norfolk Coast we can visit from May to October and because we weren’t travelling to festivals and gigs last year, we indulged ourselves fully It is stunningly beautiful and I get to swim with seals at close (sometimes very close) quarters every day. Again, we’re so lucky, it is the nearest thing to its normal self during this. It feeds us more than anything.

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I often think of a poem as a snapshot. How would you describe your relationship with poetry and photography and are the two artforms linked?

My father was a keen amateur photographer and I had hundreds of images to draw on when writing Whistle, the collection dealing with my childhood. Although autobiographical Whistle relies almost entirely on ‘metaphorical truth’ – much of it is imagined. The mechanics, materials, science and process of photography provided endless metaphorical possibilities, as did its mysteries. Each image carried a memory or an insight into my parent’s’ lives before I existed.

Photography also gave me a metaphorical lexicon, allowing me to write about personal events that would otherwise have seemed unsayable.

The language of photography still sneaks its way into my writing. I photographed people and I write about people; small human stories are what interest me. I try to bring the same tenderness and gentle in both mediums.

I was a photographer first and agree parallels exist. The critical writing about both mediums cross over and are often interchangeable. Poems and photographs exist within a physical and temporal frame, giving the viewer/reader their own imaginative space.  Both depend on acute observation, the moment or object that has something to say beyond its own self. Photographs depend on rhythm, shape and tone in presenting their moments. You could also see repetition of shapes and colours within a photograph, as rhyme.

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How will you focus on your writing coming out of lockdown and do you have any tips for other poets?

I’m writing poems for my next collection at the moment, it is six years since my last one, although, no-one is begging for me to hurry with the next one and it will be ready when it’s ready. I’ve got a commission coming up to work with Side Gallery in Newcastle.  It is the most important documentary gallery in this country and has an international reputation. Side Gallery and Amber Films have been documenting the industrial decline of the North East for sixty years now and I’ve been honoured to play a small part in that some twenty years ago. My relationship with the gallery (a co-operative) has endured. It fits in well with my collection and I can’t wait to get going with that, engaging with some world class photography. I’ve also just begun working on a collaborative project with the artist Natty Peterkin to make a sequence of small dark poetry films. He did the artwork for Shed the book and then the show and is brilliant. Shed the show, needs some development post a showcase we did in October and my producer and I are discussing when to time this in such uncertain times and what form it will take. Helen (Ivory) and I will be trying to fit in some poetry films around that.

As for tips I can only say what my (painful) process is. I have ADHD, which means my attention span is appalling, I have to trick myself into absorption and set myself strict rules about social media and other displacement activities. I don’t always succeed. Anyways here’s what I do. I write in 3 or 4 day blocks, if I possibly can (every week at the moment). This allows me to completely absorb myself in the poem. I begin those days with some poetry reading, an hour or so, which fires me up. I write in the morning, only very occasionally does it spill into the rest of the day. By setting aside a little block of days I find even the non-writing parts of the day still feed into the poem in progress. Cooking, shopping a tv programme or a walk can all contribute. On those days, the poem is what is on my mind. It’s more struggle than fun. This is useless advice, if you have a busy job, young children etc. The other tip is to marry a gifted poet, editor and teacher – Helen Ivory is taken I’m afraid. But if you can find a workshop group, again I am blessed. Writing can be a lonesome business and perspective can easily be lost. There are the Poetry Society Stanzas if you’re a member and Zoom should create opportunities for workshop groups beyond the local. Try and find like-minded writers and get together in real life or virtually.  It doesn’t matter what others think or publish or reject, if you can sit down alone with something you’ve written and be astonished it came out of your own head, that is the most important thing. Our poems are usually cleverer than we are.

I have asked you for something to inspire writing. What have you selected and why did you choose it? 

I’m touched by our fallibilities and delusions and when someone really reaches for something and doesn’t quite pull it off. When in Rome, we passed a wedding the expectation for which must have been high. I’d taken to street photography when visiting cities; this is a bit fuzzy taken on a small digital camera.

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PROMPT

A little vignette – a Rome wedding, what could be more romantic and beautiful. Make of it what you will – is that a metaphor on the sole of your shoe? What lies ahead or what led them there?

captureMartin Figura’s collection and show Whistle was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award and won the 2013 Saboteur Award for Best Spoken Word Show.  Other prizes include the Poetry Society’s 2010 Hamish Canham Prize and runner up in the 2017 RSPB/Rialto Poetry Competition. Shed (Gatehouse Press) and Dr Zeeman’s Catastrophe Machine (Cinnamon Press) were both published in 2016 and a new edition of Whistle (Cinnamon Press) in 2018.  The spoken word show Dr Zeeman’s Catastrophe Machine, was shortlisted in the 2018 Saboteur Awards and is currently touring. He lives in Norwich with Helen Ivory and sciatica.  Together during Lockdown, they began hosting Live from The Butchery Zoom readings with leading guest poets

www.martinfigura.co.uk

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Arrival at Elsewhere – film poem and Cheltenham Poetry Festival readings

Check out our Arrival at Elsewhere film poem from Against the Grain Poetry Press and sign up for the 4th March Cheltenham poetry festival reading below.

Wednesday 4th March at 8pm.

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Readers at the event include Abegail Morley, George Szirtes, John Glenday, Julian Stannard and Graham Clifford.

This event will take place on Zoom. A link to access the event will be sent to you close to the event. Check your ticket for information.

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Creativity in Lockdown: In Conversation with Michael Bartholomew-Biggs

How did you manage your creativity in 2020 and the beginning of this year?

My only act of “creativity management” in response to Covid restrictions. was a self-imposed commitment to enter about ten poetry contests between spring and autumn 2020.  I haven’t yet won anything (although one judge is still deliberating…) but the string of entry deadlines kept me working steadily on poems-in-progress and even spurred me to start a handful of new ones. Oddly, I haven’t yet set myself any similar competition goals for 2021 (perhaps I can only take so much disappointment).

Even before Covid, I had to be quite well self-managed to deal with London Grip poetry submissions (four windows per year) while also commissioning, publishing and sometimes writing book reviews. I am also still exercising what’s left of my mathematical creativity in a project with two former work colleagues. Occasional preaching at our local church entails yet another kind of working with words. With several different things to do it’s harder to feel one’s creative life is totally over!

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How were you able to balance your writing, editing and forays into online events?

London Grip editing can be a lifeline when my own writing is a bit stuck.  With regard to poetry submissions and I try to emulate Michael Laskey and the late Roy Blackman at Smiths Knoll in the 1990s by engaging in dialogue with contributors about some of the “nearly but not quite” poems. Advising others can seem easier than solving problems in my own work!

Handling London Grip reviews also keeps my mind poetically active even when I am not actually writing very much. Reading the thoughtful opinions of my excellent reviewers sometimes provides insights into my own compositional problems. When writing reviews it’s also inspiring to engage closely with the craft and imagination of other poets.

I haven’t really had much balancing to do in relation to on-line events. While I’ve been glad that they’ve become increasingly popular I’m afraid I’ve been rather slow to engage with them – perhaps because I spend quite enough time on zoom for non-poetry things.

(Stop Press: I can now report, however, that did my first zoomed open-mic spot a few days ago so perhaps I am slowly catching up with the zeitgeist.)

Do you think online events will change the poetry scene in the future?

It’s good that so many on-line events are taking place. Indeed, some of them couldn’t have happened in any other way, with readers and audiences coming together from different parts of the country or even different countries. On-line book launches can pull in bigger numbers that might have turned up at the local pub. Plus there are no room hire fees. And PayPal facilitates remote bookselling. Pity about the wine and nibbles though.

Obviously, the social pleasures of a live event are much diluted; and people will eagerly embrace “in the flesh” events when they become possible again. But the on-line genie is now out of the bottle. The potential for reaching wider audiences and / or bringing readers to rather remote locations won’t be forgotten and I’m sure that on-line events will continue to happen. I can foresee the emergence of “hybrid” events in which a traditional reading, complete with real audience, is made accessible to a wider clientele on-line.  (The latter group would have to bring their own wine however.) Nancy Mattson and I haven’t any plans to run a purely zoomed version of our Poetry in the Crypt readings – but a future hybridised version might be on the cards…

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Over the last year did you noticed a change in submissions to London Grip in terms of quality, quantity and subject matter?

One change during 2020 – which may or may not be due to the pandemic – was an increase in submissions from the USA. This added new variety to the style and subject matter of the poems we see. Without doing an accurate count I have the impression that the inbox has generally been fuller this year – presumably from contributors with more disposable time?

Thankfully, the inbox hasn’t been dominated by Covid poems. While I have published a few of these, I’m not yet sure what I think the “definitive” Covid poem should deal with.  Obviously, it can simply lament loss of control and shrinking horizons. But there could be bigger themes: the results of intrusive human interaction with, and appropriation of, the natural world; or the way “civilisation” has masked our human vulnerability and dependence on one another.

Covid does seem largely to have replaced Brexit and the Trump presidency as the main source of angst-ridden and satirical submissions!

You have a loyal group of reviewers. Can you tell me something about them and reviewing books for London Grip?

At the start of the pandemic, I made a conscious decision to maintain, or even increase, the number of reviews we publish and also the speed with which they appear. I see this as one small contribution to keeping up morale in the poetry community during a difficult time. I am very fortunate to have about forty London Grip reviewers who are happy to take on one or two books every couple of months and give them a careful reading before producing a thoughtful discussion of the book’s themes and the poet’s craft.  London Grip reviews aim to be positive in the sense of looking first for what to praise rather than what to find fault with. But our reviews would carry very little weight if they did not also acknowledge any less successful elements in a collection.

mikeMichael Bartholomew-Biggs spent his working life as a mathematician and only began reading and writing poetry as part of a mid-life crisis!  In the last twenty-odd years he has published four full collections and five chapbooks – most recently Poems in the Case (Shoestring 2018) which puts a poetry collection within the framework of a detective story and The Man Who Wasn’t Ever Here (Wayleave 2018) which is a kind of poetic biography of his Irish grandfather.  More about these and his other books can be found on his website http://mikeb-b.blogspot.com/ (the updating and improving of which should probably have been a lockdown project but wasn’t.).

Since 2011 Michael has been poetry editor of the on-line magazine London Grip http://londongrip.co.uk/ and with his wife Nancy Mattson he has organised the reading series Poetry in the Crypt at St Mary’s church in Islington for well over twenty years.  Plans to give these events something of a facelift were thwarted by the Covid crisis in 2020 but it is hoped the series will resume when circumstances permit.

 

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Unlocking Creativity with Sheena Clover

During this time, how important is input rather than output in terms of nurturing yourself and how do you feed your creativity?

Usually I have exhibition deadlines to meet and I find these helpful because I work well under pressure. I have had to adjust to working without any external demands and that has meant learning to become more aware of what I need to do with my time and creative energy in order to stay balanced and strong. Some of the creative input I usually rely on has been denied by the isolation of lockdown. When we were allowed to travel in the summer, I found myself gulping up the experience of being in a new place. I was overwhelmed at seeing the ocean again and walking in different landscapes.

I also find new ideas emerging after seeing the artwork of other people and miss going to exhibitions. We have had an art trail in our area and I have really appreciated that.

I have found creative energy by focusing on my inner world its dreams and memories and also by closely observing and reflecting on the landscape around my home.

In terms of your own wellbeing how important is your art at the moment?

Any creative experience gives meaning to my day and my life. The energy used in making and creating sparks new ideas and makes me feel alive and connected to the world. So yes, my art is very important even when my ideas haven’t travelled yet from my thoughts to the canvas!

How have you managed your creativity during these difficult times?

It has been difficult! I set myself challenges, communicate with other artists and poets and keep a journal with a mixture of writing, sketches and collage.

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I have asked you for an image of your artwork for a writing prompt. What have you selected and why did you choose it?

I have not made as much artwork as usual this year as it has been difficult to adjust to being away from my studio. What I have done to feed my creativity is to use memory of important places. This is not like looking at a photograph which records everything in its range. When we remember a place it is through the lens of emotion and the images which are most vivid are those invested with personal meaning. I have made a series called Remembered Places using different media and styles and am sharing this one with you which has its roots in my childhood.

The other series I have been working on is about the paths which start from my door and which extend in all directions. Some paths are very clear cut, other weave and move responding to invisible obstacles and seasonal changes. This image is based on one of the paths I have discovered in my daily walks.

PROMPT: The Pathway

Do post your poems in the comments below. Selected poems will be published later in the spring.

The Pathway

sheena

Sheena Clover is an artist who lives in Wivenhoe Essex. In these pieces she started by making a mono print using a gelli plate to build up layers of colour and texture and then worked into my initial image.

Her work has been exhibited in galleries in Essex and Suffolk and you can find her on instagram. She has been a working space at Cuckoo Farm Studios in Colchester. Her other passion is poetry and she is the Representative for Mosaic, Colchester’s stanza group.

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Wednesday Writing Prompt

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Definition poems:

Our previous writing prompt from Jill Munro explored list poems using her poem, A Catalogue of Phobias, as an example. This week, with the help of Jane Lovell, we look at definition poems. Jane has shared her poem, nunatak, as an example of this form and discusses it below.

nunatak:

a stone ridge exposed by wind,
a lip of stone curled at the glaucous wind,
its harrying across blown snow;

a skyline ridge, blade-and-socket spine
of something fossilised, claws sunk
in the hidden world below;

a ridge of stone, a pebbled egg
abandoned in its cleft, the embryo
a shock of livid skin in frozen oils;

a granite ridge, its icebound edge 
orbited by tracks of lupine shadow
swerving out across the void.

 

Sometimes the only thing that breaks up the endless, snowblown Arctic wasteland is a nunatak, a stone ridge, the summit of a mountain protruding through the ice. By using a series of definitions, I hoped to approach the nunatak, drawing closer not just across miles of snow but across the timescape, from fossilised ancient history right up to the tracks left by today’s snowmobiles. The harshness of the environment is symbolised by the egg which, like the tracks, is a repeated metaphor in a sequence of poems I’ve been writing about landscape, wayfinding and exploration.

Poems written using this prompt can be submitted when the submissions window opens at the end of March.

IMG_0372 jpgJane Lovell is an award-winning poet whose work focuses on our relationship with the planet and its wildlife. She has been widely published in journals and anthologies in the UK and US.

She has won the Flambard Prize (2015), the Wigtown Prize (2018) and the Geoff Stevens Memorial Prize (2020) and has been shortlisted for several other literary awards including the Basil Bunting Prize, the Robert Graves Prize and Periplum Book Award.

Publications include MetastaticOne TreeForbidden and This Tilting Earth. Her prize-winning collection, The God of Lost Ways, has just been published by Indigo Dreams Press.

Jane also writes for Dark MountainElementum Journal and Photographers Against Wildlife Crime.
She lives in Kent and is Writer-in-Residence at Rye Harbour Nature Reserve.

More information can be found at  https://janelovellpoetry.co.uk.

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Creativity in Lockdown: In Conversation with Sarah Salway

Writing in extraordinary times

Writing can be an amazing way of recording what is happening around us with each poet giving voice to their own particular experience. This coming together can document the time, resonate with others and produce a collective, artistic record. But what if this new lockdown  left you feeling numb and unable to move forward?

Sarah Salway, what guidance might you give a fellow poet who feels creatively deadened by the lockdown?

I still go cold when I remember those initial memes and ‘motivational’ advice about how we should be like Shakespeare who wrote through the plague, and how this was finally the time to finish our great novels because I can’t be the only one who felt like a failure!

One of the things I’ve noticed creatively is how much I miss the random surprise of going to an exhibition and seeing a painting that inspires new thoughts, going to the theatre, people watching, or talking easily to strangers in a pub or poetry reading. So I think the solution is that we all have to be kinder to ourselves at this time and rather than worry about output we should gently be proactive about our input, if that makes sense. Some ways I’ve done this is through:

  • weekly online writing workshops with two poet friends where we have been giving each other prompts to finish within a week. The joy is that they don’t have to be perfect, and following someone else’s prompts means I’m not going over my old ground.
  • I’ve organised silent writing sessions with other writing friends so we all click into the same Zoom room and write together but silently, apart from a quick hello and goodbye at the end. Strange, but it is nice to look up and see someone else hunched over the page. Also the accountability makes me turn up to the page!
  • There’s a wonderful organisation someone told me about called Street Wisdom. You download their app and it helps you formulate a question as you walk, and then you look for answers to come up through what you notice. It’s one of the things I’ve been using it to get ideas for stories and poems, because it’s amazing how many random things I might have missed otherwise without this focus.
  • Actually I guess that’s the three main things I’d offer to someone who feels deadened – be prepared for imperfection and try to have fun with your writing, give yourself some accountability, and to throw a frame or focus over your walks. Oh, and to be kind to yourself.

sarah s

Do you think writing a little and often could help, or should we wait for the muse to find us?

What was it Picasso said? ‘Inspiration exists but it has to find you working.’ I’ve certainly found that the act of writing always helps me write more, even if it’s freewriting or notes. It really is the ‘act’, rather than whether it’s good or bad. I’ve been asked so often for suggestions for freewriting prompts that I designed a free 30 day challenge, ink and inspiration, on my website – https://www.sarahsalway.co.uk/free-stuff/ink-and-inspiration. It’s a little lockdown gift for other writers, although I do use it myself and I absolutely loved putting it together.

I think we can get too hung up on what ‘writing’ is. Does it have to be brilliant and publishable in order to be ‘writing’, or can we just enjoy doing it? I suppose that’s why I keep thinking about the process of doing it. I mostly write with pen and journal so it really is tactile, but god, I miss writing in cafes. With drinks I haven’t made myself.

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If we feel we cannot write, is there something else we could do to nurture ourselves?

I think so, but all suggestions are going to be so individual. I love long baths, but my partner considers them the devil. His idea of nurturing himself is a cold and muddy walk, preferably scrambling over dangerous terrain! 

One of my favourite writing and wellbeing activities is the list of 100 – there’s something magic about that number because the first 30 will be predictable, the second 30 will be more stretching, but the final 40 will be often where the juice can be found. The trick is to do it quickly – it should take you about 20 minutes to finish all 100 and repetition is encouraged because it tells you something.

So perhaps one thing we can do to nurture ourselves is to write a list of 100 things we (not anyone else or what we think we should do) would like to – and can – do right now. However odd. However small.

The link between wellbeing and creative writing is well documented. Do you think there is a way we can use creative writing during lockdown to help ourselves through this difficult time?

Well, the list of 100 above is one, and I hope my 30 days of prompts is a way of having fun and surprising ourselves, but I also find there’s something about writing about what we’re going through right now that is helping me.

I feel so hopeless and angry about the Government, the situation, everything, but just writing about it makes me feel I have a voice. And stops it going round and round in my head. It certainly helps me more than just shouting at the news!

I haven’t been keeping a diary as such – although now I wish I had – but I have been writing vignettes about some of the odd things we are doing now and treating as normal. Thinking about language helps me too, and all those words we casually drop into conversation – lockdown, furlough, PPE – that we’d never heard of before. Writing it all down helps me notice the oddness of it all, and that feels important. I don’t want to get used to these times.

Last March you became seriously ill with Covid and the recovery time is long and slow. How did this experience change the way you perceived things in general, and creativity in particular?

Yes, it was a rough time. I was hospitalised on oxygen for six days, and although luckily I didn’t get Long Covid, I have noticed differences. I think I’m fully recovered now (touch wood) but I got so tired for a long time and also had such bad brain fog that I couldn’t remember even basic words, not ideal for a writer!

I’ve had a lot of help – my local hospital, Pembury, have been brilliant, and the respiratory physio there actually told me to read as a way of regaining concentration which was interesting. I can see the benefits, reading stops me doomscrolling on social media – doomscrolling, there’s another word I hadn’t heard before this  year.

When I got ill, I’d been working on a novel about an 18th century gardener, but it seemed ridiculous to be writing about the past when what was happening right now was actually where my heart was. I started writing blog posts as a way of helping other people, but also making sense for myself about my experiences.

And then I felt a real urge to write poems. I think this was because the shape worked as a container for a lot of difficult emotions, and also because it helped to lose myself in choosing the exact right word, line break, and even rhythm for what I wanted to say. There was an element of organisation in the writing that I wasn’t finding in my life!

Recently though I’ve been loving reading and watching TV for escapism, and I keep finding myself thinking about my handsome Georgian gardener so who knows! To go back to  your original question, maybe this is the answer – to let ourselves follow what we need to do right now.

 

As well as her six books, Sarah’s writing has appeared in a number of publications, including the Virago Book of Shopping, the Poetry of Sex (Penguin Books), Poetry London, the Financial Times, Psychologies magazine, and has been commissioned by BBC Radio 4.

She loves teaching creative writing, and is so passionate about words that in 2018, she did a TEDx Talk above..

She is a Hawthornden Fellow, former Canterbury Laureate, and has twice been awarded international residential Fellowships from Virginia Center for Culture and Arts in the US. She has taught in Universities for many years, and as the Royal Literary Fund Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science for three years, she supported students and staff with their academic writing. She currently runs a long-standing Reading Group in Kent.

In addition to Twitter and Instagram, you can also find her on Substack and at Writer in the Garden.

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Unlocking Creativity with Daniel Goodwin

How have you approached the Covid situation?

Initially I was just plain cross with it all and hoped it would pass quickly, but it was also clear that this might well not happen. Here we are, nearly a year later. Fighting Covid is more than just a medical and physical battle, it’s a battle for mental health and well-being too.

It’s crucial to avoid being dragged down by unwanted change, becoming fixated on the statistics and allowing conversations to be dominated by the latest lockdown news. Covid added further layers to our complex lives and it’s important to remember that everyone is dealing with life in the round, which in itself can be very challenging.

Capturehttps://www.danielgoodwinart.com/

Where have you found the focus for your work and what is it that drew you to it?

My work often has its starting point in the resonance of experiences, places, conversations, personal reflection and responses to literature and music. Its focus over the last year reflects a recent move to Bloxham in Oxfordshire from Greenwich in London and getting to know a new place.

Specifically I have become interested in the unique imagery found in the carvings of the local church architecture, dating from the 14th Century, a time which had parallels with our own. I have also been looking at other aspects of the place, including the impact of the civil war and ancient archaeology such as the Rollright stones, a sort of mini-Stonehenge on the hills a few miles away. Both are likely to emerge in coming months. And then there’s a marvellous 1940s COI film called 24 Square Miles which examined rural development, based on this area, which is going to feed in somewhere I am sure.

Alongside this Colin Pink and I have continued the collaboration that started with the collection The Ventriloquist Dummy’s Lament, and some of my woodcuts are due to appear in a new collection later this year.

ventriloquist-front-cover-with-border

Can you tell me something about your portfolio Lockdown Explorations?

Lockdown Explorations documents some of my drawings of the carvings at the local church, St Mary’s Bloxham, which have been done during the strange times of Covid restrictions. There are also some linocuts derived from them. The carvings are a heady mix of sacred and profane, but because of the passage of time information is scarce about the story they are intended to tell or exactly why they were produced. Many are highly ambiguous, but they are found alongside some very clear judgement scenes and portrayals of the apostles. This suggests to me that more clarity could eventually be forthcoming.

Getting things done has been a bit of a struggle. There have been the obvious frustrations of Covid and I have also been working without a studio which is emerging as part of house renovations. So Lockdown Explorations reflects a tentative start in a new situation, alongside the woodcut poetry illustrations.

Were you drawn to any particular carvings and do you think it was because of the times we are living through?

Yes, as I looked more deeply at this ambiguous mediaeval imagery it generated contemporary meaning: A sheltering hare reminded me of people shielding; A conflict between two characters had resonance with the civil war three centuries later and current political tensions; And the corroded faces of the saints looked just like people wearing masks. It put things in context for me too. For example it is thought that the Great Plague/ Black Death of 1348 killed around 50% of the population. Covid is terrible and frightening for many, the 1918 influenza pandemic was devastating, but we can’t possibly imagine the impact of a pandemic of that scale. Yet people lived through it and life went on, eventually.

Yet these works are not just about Covid and Lockdown, they relate to wider and more general questions such as what’s important and makes for a good life, a good community, a good place. So they’re explorations at this time to place it in context, not into this time. As I said earlier, life goes on.

Do you see a parallel between the medieval life at St Mary’s church and what is happening in the present day?

That’s a very difficult question to answer because so little is known about the life of ordinary people at that time. I have found my own meaning in the imagery but it might just be misplaced inference or even appropriation and I am carrying on with reading and research to find out more. On the other hand, I am also aware that not knowing everything has its advantages, so I am proceeding tentatively and enjoying the competing interpretations!

Capture

What have you learned from the last year?

My key piece of learning was to make the most of everything that is possible, rather than mourn the loss of freedoms and life as it was. We are where we are, and it is probably best to try and work with that. So while I have put some things on hold I have also tried to maintain some momentum and keep friendship and collaboration going with key people in my network, whilst also trying to avoid Zoom/Skype fatigue!

Thinking of your readers, the poetry world seems to have some very good networks and linkages and I am aware that some Stanzas have moved online to ensure continued development and support. That’s a great idea and definitely reflects the importance of sharing and testing one’s approach and output in order to develop.

Just making sure that there’s support from one’s world of practice and being comfortable with taking small steps forward under these circumstances seems to be victory enough. The trick will be to take what’s positive from all this and make it a foundation for work going forward.

I have asked you for an image of your artwork for a writing prompt. What have you selected and why did you choose it?

I have selected an ink and wash drawing of a woman’s head from the doorway of St Mary’s Bloxham. It’s quite badly corroded and, as I said, reminds me of someone that’s masked. I chose it because I would love to know what she thought or would be thinking now. Perhaps her voice could come out of the poems that people might write; or perhaps it she might help poets respond in their own voice. It will be great to see what happens!

Do post your poems in the comments below. Selected poems will be published later in the spring.

dan

danielDaniel Goodwin’s work draws from places, conversations, personal reflection and responses to literature and music. It includes acrylic and watercolour paintings, woodcuts, and works in ink. It has its roots in 20th century modernism and is increasingly inspired by Northern European art, for example the artists of the mid-20th Century COBRA movement. He is currently working on a series on local places, including a mediaeval church and a group of standing stones, reflecting on what they tell us about the people and communities who have gone before us. See www.danielgoodwinart.com for further details.

Daniel is very interested in how people engage art and his work is almost always produced in dialogue. A good example of this is his ongoing collaboration with the poet Colin Pink, producing woodcuts for The Ventriloquist Dummy’s Lament and another forthcoming collection.

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Creativity in Lockdown: In Conversation with Claire Walker

What I am Doing in Lockdown

I’ve two school-age daughters, so most of lockdown is focused on home schooling. We’re going on some nice walks, eating lots of nice food, and generally trying to stay sane!

Thinking back to the first lockdown how did it affect you and your writing?

When home schooling kicked in with the first lockdown, my immediate thought was that I couldn’t fit in home schooling, day job, editing, housework and writing – either mentally or time-wise, so I chose to stop writing for a while. Something had to give, and as the other jobs all involved deadlines and commitments to other people, it was the writing that had to go! In time, I got my act together and started writing again and, thankfully, it proved fruitful – my friend and poetry-collaborator Charley Barnes and I wrote the bulk of a second collaborative poetry pamphlet (Myth|Woman – published later this year by BLER Press) during the first lockdown. We also launched our first collaborative pamphlet (Hierarchy of Needs, V. Press), which was wonderful.

claire

Have you found it easier to motivate yourself as an editor or a poet?

I’m definitely finding it easier to motivate myself as an editor. Part of the reason for this is because there are lots of little deadlines along the way – I know things have to be done by certain times (poems have to be drafted and ready for our Tuesday and Friday publication days, submissions have to be replied to within one month, and so on). On a similar note, while the workload for Atrium is higher than the writing goals I set myself, there are lots of little discreet end points within the work, so I can more easily set myself a manageable task that I know I’ll be able to complete within a given time-frame.

Also, it’s lovely to have someone to work with. I enjoy the solitary nature of writing – that headspace to just go with your imagination – but working closely with Holly Magill is a joy, and our regular (virtual, at the moment!) editorial meetings are always something to look forward to!

Have you noticed a change in submissions to Atrium Poetry since lockdown?

I think we received more submissions in 2020 than in previous years, and I’m sure a good chunk of that was lockdown-related. Some people commented in their cover email or bio that they’d been inspired to start writing/return to writing when lockdown began. We have had a lot of poems about Covid (see next question!).

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 If poets are considering sending work to you should they send poems about Covid or are you saturated by them?

We don’t have any set themes at Atrium, so poets are free to send us work on whatever subjects they wish. Having said that, we have been (understandably) sent a lot of Covid-related poems, and I would make the point that the only ones we’ve gone on to accept for publication have been ones that look at the pandemic in a fresh and original light (though the same applies to any subject, really!). We’ve received many poems that essentially say the same sorts of things as each other (‘it’s hard not seeing family and friends/ I’m worried about older relatives/ I’m washing my hands a lot’!). It’s not eye-catching or ‘different’ enough to simply state the more obvious aspects, relatable though they are.

How will you focus on your writing during this current lockdown and do you have any tips for other poets?

I’d just made my ‘Writing Projects for 2021’ list when lockdown was announced, and my initial feeling was ‘just carry on regardless’, despite the restrictions on time.

The reality, though, is that I’ve not been able to keep up with things – daytime is taken up by home school and other work, and I’m too old now to have any energy left to write in the evenings! But my experience of the first lockdown reassures me that writing will pick back up again in time, and I’m trying to be relaxed about it! Needs must, and it’s not forever.

I suppose, with that in mind, my tip for other poets would be don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t get much writing done during lockdown – for some it’s a very productive time, but for others (most?) there are too many other things going on to focus properly on writing, whether that be because of other commitments or just because you can’t find the oomph to do it in amongst the general worry! The urge/time/brain-space to write will return – you’ve not written your last poem. Trying to follow my own advice there…

claire

Claire Walker’s poetry has been published in journals and anthologies including Poetry Birmingham Literary JournalThe Interpreter’s House, Prole, Marble, The Poetry Shed and The Chronicles of Eve, and has been shortlisted in the 2019 Welshpool Poetry Festival Competition. Her most recent solo publication is Collision (Against the Grain Poetry Press, 2019). Her pamphlet Somewhere Between Rose and Black (V. Press, 2017) was shortlisted for Best Poetry Pamphlet in the 2018 Saboteur Awards. In August 2020, V. Press published Hierarchy of Needs: A Retelling – a co-authored pamphlet with Charley Barnes.