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.

Looking Back On Lockdown

I started 2020 full of optimism and good intention. I wrote blogs in January and February and sent out newsletters, hoping that this would be a year where I kept in touch more with readers. But the world was changing, and in March the UK became a different place.

My birthday is in early March and I had gone with my family to spend a few days on the beautiful Northumberland coast. That weekend the first deaths from Covid-19 were recorded in the UK. On the 13th March I met a friend for lunch, the last time I did so, and only now is that possibility returning. Our daughter called in that evening after work, and didn’t visit again until May when we could socially distance in the garden. We are just having the odd couple of friends round now, but we won’t be returning to foreign travel, restaurants, pubs or cinema for the foreseeable future, even if it is allowed.

The change to internet deliveries and local specialist shopping is a permanent one, I think, and as I look back over the spring and early summer, Lockdown has left our family with a lot of positives as well as some sacrifices. We have a lovely walled garden which is unusual close to the centre of York, and we have turned some of it over to growing potatoes, onions, tomatoes, lettuce, strawberries and herbs. We bought a beehive and bees were delivered at the end of April, and after half the hive split off and were recaptured we now have two hives! The garden is full of perennials and wildflowers, different varieties of bees, butterflies, insects and birds. In the silent early days of Lockdown the song of the blackbirds and robins was a real treat, as was the glorious April and May weather.

What have you been doing in Lockdown – what will you keep and what will you be glad to see the back of?

There has been much talk about the pandemic being our generation’s challenge equivalent to wartime, with comparisons to the numbers of people killed in the Blitz. Having written in The Peacemaker about that tense time as war was looming, we have certainly had to adjust to widespread fear, difficulties getting food and strains on public services, but our lives now seem much more complex and the current challenge is navigating a return to normal whilst the threat of coronavirus still lurks in our midst.

Reader’s Block/Writer’s Block

Some people have found the space of lockdown ideal for reading and writing. Others haven’t had any space as they tried to juggle home schooling or community service with work or caring responsibilities. Some of us have been stuck, probably because our heads were filled for a time with daily briefings and the appalling rise in cases of Covid-19, and tragically, deaths.

I have found it hard to work on my second book, Does She Love Us? so in March, April and May concentrated on sending it out to agents and publishers. In April, which was NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month) I did a month long course with a daily writing prompt and had some mentoring support from a well known poet who helped me put a new poetry pamphlet together. I started work on a new novel about a woman who meets a homeless man and realises he is the person she almost married 30 years before – it’s called Whatever Happened to Oliver Cartwright? and I’m quite excited about it.

In June I got some editorial advice about Does She Love Us? which has re-energised me to get stuck into refocusing the novel to make it as good as I believe it can be. I’m also reading more – mostly poetry – having struggled to read anything but news for weeks, so I’m hopeful that my new normal will mean more words either written or read. This blog is a start!

A Virtual World

Events to promote The Peacemaker were cancelled in March, but I had the pleasure of presenting to 80 people via Zoom as part of the #StayAtHomeFestival. I am missing meeting book groups, particularly, and would be delighted to do them via Zoom if any of your groups have transferred to that platform. Just get in touch.

On my courses and events page you’ll see how Awakening The Writer Within has been affected by Covid-19. It is sad not to be with people, but wonderful to be able to reach so many more – do join us if you would like some inspiration to help you write – it works for me!

To whet your appetite, here’s a little taster adapted from our workshop on the 4th July.

Shopping Day:

It’s 2030, shops are still operating but are completely contactless and transactions are done by face recognition. You go to buy something in your favourite store, but the system doesn’t recognise you. You don’t seem to exist.

Write a piece of flash fiction (under 500 words), a poem or short drama in response to this prompt.

Very best wishes to you all

Janet

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

Inherited Health: The Patterns in Families

A young woman working at the CEAG Factory in Barnsley, 1938

“...she kept her eyes on the rack in front of her, filled with spikes and live filaments on which she tested each bulb. The good ones she put in their individual hole in the tray on her left, the duds in a basket by her right knee. It was clean work, the factory was quiet enough to hear the wireless, and it paid better than the Tin Can Works.

The opening scene in my novel The Peacemaker is based on this still from a short film which I found in the Yorkshire Film Archive. It is a glass factory – the CEAG Factory in Barnsley, South Yorkshire – famous for making miners’ lamps and light bulbs. My book is fiction, but based on fact. The main character, Violet Lowther, is based on my mother aged 18. She never worked at CEAG, but she worked in other factories and I grew up knowing people who worked there.

Our lives are made up of stories, and they blend fact and fiction. Just before I was 18, things changed for me in a way which has affected the whole of my life – I had my first experience of depression. One summer day I walked to school as usual, but I felt very sad. I sat in the sixth form common room feeling as if I were in some kind of bubble, set apart from everybody else. And then somebody spoke to me. I couldn’t answer; I burst into tears and ran off to hide in the cloakroom.

In the month that I needed to recover enough to go back to school, my mother cared for me in a state of bewilderment – at a loss to understand why I had gone from being a happy teenager to a distraught young woman. She seemed puzzled but she never criticized me or tried to get me to shake off my mood. She took me seriously, got me treated by a doctor and with her help I came through that episode.

Most people who know me think of me as positive, an extrovert. I laugh a lot and generally come across as a jolly type. But I have been treated for depression about twelve times in my life, always with medication, occasionally with counselling. The story I present to the world is a happy one, but I sometimes mask a deep sadness inside.

I have seen this pattern occur in my family, and in researching deceased relatives as background to The Peacemaker, I could see that many of us have shared an experience of mental ill health which we have managed in different ways, sometimes by medicating ourselves, often with alcohol.

What is difficult to see is cause and effect. Is our experience of mental health an inherited trait? Or are we responding to events in our lives which destabilize us? Perhaps both. The concurrence of trauma and economic or social distress with mental ill health is very strong, but not everybody who experiences physical pain, poverty or discrimination reacts the same way. Sometimes my depression has coincided with difficult life events – the death of my parents, the post-natal depression after the birth of one of my children – but at other times it has seemed to come from nowhere. Sometimes I have dealt with difficulty by facing it head on and pushing through, at other times by needing to retreat for a while. There is no right or wrong. I might catch a cold or I might not, I might have a heart attack or I might not. There are a lot of variables, physical and environmental.

We continue to ask: see mental health like physical health – it is all health. We can help ourselves to be healthy, but sometimes we will become ill, no matter what we do, whoever we are. If we live happy, prosperous peaceful lives, our health will be generally better. As I saw from the generations of my own family who experienced poverty and war decade upon decade, from one century to another, their health suffered both in body and mind.

We know we inherit predispositions to physical ill health, and we may to mental ill health. We also know how important our environmental, economic and social circumstances are in keeping us healthy. In Mental Health Awareness Week, on World Mental Health Day, let’s all watch out for each other.