Reading and Writing Poetry in the Pandemic

My garden in late April 2020

I’ve found it hard to read and write fiction during the pandemic, and particularly so during the spring lockdown period. My own deadlines for finishing my second book have slipped and I’ve read not one single novel since March. Instead I’ve sought solace in poetry, and it’s been a joy.

In this blog, I want to tell you about some of the wonderful new poetry I’ve been reading, about some of my own poetry successes this year so far, and about something really lovely that happened this morning.

No theatre, cinema, music, eating out or holidays meant that I was saving a lot of money and I decided to spend it on writing. I did several online courses and bought lots of books – but only poetry books. I did a fantastic course with Wendy Pratt where we wrote poetry or short prose every day in April, and a half day workshop with Kim Moore who also helped me with a manuscript edit for a new poetry pamphlet I hope to publish. I also wrote along with our participants in the online workshops that Clara Challoner Walker and I devised for Awakening The Writer Within. The third and fourth of these are to come on 26th September and 7th November and booking is still open here.

Of all the poetry I’ve read over the past six months three books stand out. Little Kings, Peter Kahn’s witty and wide-ranging stories from the many corners or his heritage and experience, poems which vary in setting, tone and form but which always let you in to share the ride.

The second is Nina Mingya Powles’ Magnolia, a beautiful travelogue across space and time which plays vividly and delicately with language and form, takes us through steaming heat and pouring rain and feeds us with the most mouth-watering edible descriptions. Wonderfully produced both Magnolia and Little Kings came in my subscription from Nine Arches Press.

John McCullough, a generous poet and person, won the Hawthornden Prize for Reckless Paper Birds. It’s as vivid and startling as the birds he posts on his social media pages, but he manages to be both exotic and accessible which is the strength of this collection, I think.

Writers are always told to read, read, read. And it’s true, the more you read, the more you understand of the craft of writing. It has helped my poetry this year to read more and with it I have gained in confidence, sent out more work, and had more published. So far my best success is to be awarded second prize in the Yeovil Poetry Prize which was announced last week. My poem was one of a number I wrote in the early weeks of lockdown, when I was rediscovering our garden. Here it is:

And to top it all, this morning I turned on Twitter after a summer break and found my suggestion of The Moth Signal by Thomas Hardy had been chosen and read by Samuel West as part of his #PandemicPoems series.

Hardy was one of the Ten Twentieth Century Poets that I was taught at school in the early 1970s, and that collection is one I have returned to again recently, finding a lot of comfort in familiar words. It made me realise how important it is to look both back and forwards, to value the old and celebrate the new. It’s not one or the other in times like these, it’s both.

It's Never Too Late…To Start Writing

Happy New Year! My resolution for 2020 is to connect more with readers and this is my first of what I hope will be monthly communications this year. For me, 2019 was a momentous year, having my first book published at the age of 63 was a great personal achievement – it really is never too late.

I’ve had a fantastic time meeting readers and other writers at literary festivals, conferences and events in 2019 and have particularly enjoyed talking to small reading groups. I think it is my favourite thing to do, so if you would like me to talk to your group about any aspect of my book or the writing process, please do ask. This photograph is of my daughter’s yoga group’s book club!

In 2020 I’m already looking forward to being at York Literature Festival again, this time in a collaborative presentation called Family History: Fact or Fiction with my fellow writers Jane Austin and Yvie Holder. We will be at Explore York Library at 2pm on Monday 23rd March. Tickets are £3-£5 from Explore York.

The Peacemaker

Set in 1938 The Peacemaker tells the moving story of young woman’s struggle to make peace with her father on the eve of the Second World War. If you haven’t read it yet, here’s a short extract to whet your appetite…

Violet would like to go back to Thorndale, her memories of it were vague. She remembered it lush and green in summer and white with thick snow in winter. But always with the sun shining in an intensely blue sky. She remembered the row of cottages on each side of the lane which wound up towards the mine. All the men worked there, her father among them. She remembered a tiny house filled with children who came to see her mother. Peggy read from the Mother Goose, while the children dipped sticks of rhubarb into little bowls of sugar set between them. Violet remembered her sitting with her own children in the back field, showing them how to pierce daisy stalks with a fingernail and thread a chain. She remembered how Peggy let them stay up on a cloudless night to look at the stars and showed them how to look for bears in the sky. She was a mother who always heard the birds singing. But Violet also remembered the rain on the window, the howl of the wind down the chimney when the fire would blow out, and her mother weeping when her little brother died. She remembered a dark cupboard where she would hide with Daisy and Frank, waiting for Pop to stop ranting.

The Peacemaker is published by John Hunt Publishing. If you don’t have a copy, you can order it from any major or independent bookshop or direct from Amazon or other online retailer. If you have read my book, and you liked it, please leave a review on Amazon or on Goodreads, it really does help.

Does She Love Us?

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I am also delighted to say that the start of 2020 marks the completion of the final draft of my second novel Does She Love Us? in which a young woman’s buried childhood memories are triggered by the death of her mother. This character-driven novel has the quality of memoir and draws on my own experience as a child living in a mining village in South Yorkshire in the early 1960s. As the world goes through dramatic changes, Does She Love Us? focuses on the drama of everyday lives. It explores the nature of love and the experience of women through the distinctive voices of a quiet but perceptive child and her romantic, emotional mother. Please stay in touch via FB, Twitter or Instagram or my website for updates.

Awakening The Writer Within Retreats and Workshops

If you are interested in writing, or need some practice, do think of coming on one of our Awakening The Writer Within retreats or workshops. Details are on the events page of the website. In the meantime, here’s a writing tip to help your creative thoughts flow.

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You Wear It Well – A Writing Exercise

In The Peacemaker, Violet is a young woman obsessed by clothes. I love writing about what people are wearing as I think it’s a great way to convey character. Use your own clothes to think about how they convey aspects of your own character and use your observations to write a poem or short piece of prose.

Make some notes about significant pieces of clothing:

Try to think about the first piece of clothing you remember wearing – were you playing outside with your friends, had you been taken to buy a new outfit for a holiday or party, were your pyjamas your first clothing memory?

What were your teenage faux pas when it came to clothing – flares or drainpipes? Punk or Pinstripes? Baggy jumpers or crop tops? Whatever your era, which piece of clothing represents the biggest fashion mistake that you loved anyway?

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What’s in your wardrobe now? If your pipes burst this winter, what is the first piece of clothing you would rescue, and which would you happily see rot? Why?

Now look at your notes and let them tell a story. You might find a compelling story in one particular memory, or a thread that winds through your life. If you’d like to share any of your writing, do send it to me, and if you’re happy to see it published online do let me know, it would be a pleasure to feature your writing.

Please let me know if you’ve enjoyed reading this blog. I hope to be back with another in February.

All the best for a brilliant 2020!

Janet