We’re pleased to announce that we will be at Lambeth Readers and Writers Festival on Tuesday 17 May with a panel event based on Where We Find Ourselves: Poems and Stories of Maps and Mapping from UK Writers of the Global Majority.
Join us at Clapham Library for readings and a Q & A discussion with:
It’s Shakespeare’s birthday! To celebrate we spoke to poet Michelle Penn about her upcoming collection, Paper Crusade and how it felt to rewrite the Bard.
Over the years, I’ve had numerous ambitions and goals, but rewriting Shakespeare was never one of them. Ever.
Yet there I was, at Sadler’s Wells in 2014, brimming over with ideas after seeing The Tempest Replica, a contemporary dance piece choreographed by Crystal Pite. I was inspired by the movements, the psychology, the white masks and costumes, the folded paper boats. The production stirred something in me that I had to express in words. Which sent me back to the original source, The Tempest — and the problem of rewriting Shakespeare.
I knew I wanted to make something that was different from both the dance piece and the original play — and it had to feel relevant to the twenty-first century. Of course, there’s plenty in The Tempest that continues to be relevant (themes of power, forgiveness, language, love, etc.), but it seemed to me that a refugee magician coming to an island, colonising it, altering its environment and terrorising those around him suggested more of a tragic approach than a comedic one.
I decided to concentrate only on a handful of characters and to add The Sea: a character contemptuous of humans and both participant and commentator. And I deliberately left most of the characters unnamed in order to really separate them from Shakespeare’s characters. I didn’t want to think about Prospero but about The Father, a man desperate for revenge, a man who has suffered losses and can’t control his anger, a man who wants to feel powerful and respected, even feared. Similarly, I wanted to create more of an interior life for The Daughter, so she couldn’t be the sweet, obedient Miranda. And I wanted C’s struggles and rebellion to be full of not just resentment but pain. The characters in Paper Crusade needed independent ‘lives’, apart from Shakespeare.
Easier said than done. While I found myself quickly and deeply inside the world of my characters, I was sometimes needled by doubt. What was I doing? Who on earth was I to rewrite Shakespeare? The idea seemed hilarious, arrogant, a recipe for failure. Shakespeare didn’t need my help or my reimagining.
But sometimes, there’s comfort in a crowd, and when I had a stab of despair, I reminded myself of others who have reimagined The Tempest: Peter Greenway’s film, Prospero’s Books or Derek Jarman’s The Tempest or Julie Taymore’s, in which Helen Mirren plays Prospera. Numerous ballets and dance pieces have been made on The Tempest, including one choreographed by Rudolf Nureyev. And of course, other writers have used Shakespeare’s play as source material: Aimé Césaire rewrote it to focus on its colonial themes. Auden riffed on it in his long poem, ‘The Sea and the Mirror’, which he considered his ars poetica. Browning wrote about Caliban, Shelley about Ariel.
Of course, there were still moments when I could almost imagine Shakespeare laughing at me from the grave. But the Bard himself was a great borrower and reinterpreter of earlier stories, so I assumed he’d understand — and maybe even appreciate the effort. After all, the play is a springboard, not a mirror, not something to imitate.
Overall, rewriting Shakespeare turned out to be great fun. I loved being inside the island world and with the characters, seeing them in my mind, hearing them speak and watching where they took the story. I didn’t know how Paper Crusade would end until I reached the final pages, and that process was exciting. The characters led me to expand my poetry and try things I’d never tried before. And although I’m a fan of several of Shakespeare’s plays, I now have a special bond with The Tempest.
Listen to Michelle Penn reading ‘The Sea, Offended’ from Paper Crusade:
Paper Crusade will be published on 21 June 2022. You can pre-order a copy from our webshop now. Details of online and in-person launch events (in-person at Keats House in London) are coming soon.
– What does having your work included in What Meets the Eye mean to you?
Emma: Firstly, I’m delighted to be alongside an impressive list of names. I’ve known Josephine Dickinson’s poems for a long time and I know Liam O’Dell’s work as a journalist but haven’t encountered his poems before. Raymond Antrobus’s preface is a generous consideration of identity and bias around being D/deaf and hard of hearing. Secondly, I’m really pleased at being included. I was nervous about submitting because I wasn’t sure if I was “deaf enough” to qualify – I can pass as hearing although was deaf as a young child and am hard of hearing now – and I’m unsure of where the boundary lies. In the event, I decided to submit because if I didn’t submit, there was no chance of acceptance. I shifted the responsibility for the decision to the editors and thought it was better to submit and get a rejection than find out afterwards my poem might have been accepted…but I still left it until the deadline.
Colly: I almost didn’t submit my poem! I saw the call-out but I scrolled past, thinking it wasn’t for me. I’ve only been writing for 3 years and I had no thoughts that my work would be even a smidge good enough to be published by Arachne Press, in a proper book!
I accidentally joined a (hearing) writing circle, but that too wasn’t easy to follow, but something ignited in me. I read some of the women’s writings in the group and thought they were fabulous! I was invited to some poetry reading events, but being deaf, they were completely inaccessible, and my confidence was shaken. I had no ‘baseline’ to draw from; no peers to learn from about what works, what doesn’t and how to actually write.
I was (still am!) pretty clueless when it comes to ‘proper writing’. One of the local poets called my writing ‘childish and immature’, which could have really turned me off writing, but I’m not easily broken. Maybe that comes from being deaf – thick skin and all that. Then I took part in a fully accessible writing course for deaf, disabled and neurodivergent writers run by Spread The Word; the first time I’d been able to do something where I felt equal… and I did. I didn’t know any of the people on the course, but it was led by the marvellous Jamie Hale and had people like DL Williams and Raymond Antrobous amongst so many others. I wasn’t intimidated, because I didn’t know them, never having been in the writing arena.
I think this is the reason I pressed the ‘submit’ button. Because other people believed in me, so I thought – why not? Nothing to lose! To have my poem Coffee Shop published in this anthology with such incredible people – and edited by Sophie Stone – is just inspiring! I’m so proud that my words are in print! For a new writer who is deaf and pretty much winging it, this is a huge buzz! I mostly write for performance and I know what ‘looks good’ on a stage; I’m bold and fearless and happy to try things out, so seeing that my piece occupies a valid space in a book amongst other authors, is wonderful.
– Both of your poems address issues around the social definitions of deafness and disability. Why did you want to explore this in your work?
Colly: Because it comes easy to me. It’s my lived experience and I could spend all day – all week – telling you sob stories and horror stories about how life is inaccessible (eg the poetry events I don’t go to, or the theatre performances I miss out on), but I don’t want to feel angry and frustrated all the time. I spent years feeling like that, and hearing people stop caring after a while. Writing poetry from a personal experience with some humour, gets the point across more effectively for me. I use my voice a lot when performing live, and I inject BSL as a visual ‘accent’ and often with voice off, which really makes an audience see my point. I’m told that because I use humour, it can ‘disarm’ an audience into thinking it’s fluffy and funny – but the honest twists of experience can make hearing people think about what it means to be deaf, and with deaf audiences, the shared experience makes us nod and agree because we’ve all been there. I don’t always write about deafness, but there is often an element of ‘silence’ in my poetry, which alludes to the inability to hear. I think with Coffee Shop, the references are very relatable for lots of deaf people. I’ve written several pieces on ‘movement’, but this fit the brief and being an anthology of deaf writers, seemed appropriate.
Emma: My poem is about my journey into deafness, crossing the deaf/hard of hearing boundary and the difficulties created by having a largely invisible disability. At home alone, I don’t have to worry about how loud or quiet my voice is. I am in control of what background noise there is and my being hard of hearing doesn’t stop me doing anything that I want to do. However, in social circumstances, barriers are erected. Hearing people don’t think about background noise, someone knocking a glass on a hard floor is an annoyance rather than something that disrupts a conversation, why you might want to text rather than call, why it mattered that subtitles recently disappeared from TV channels, why it’s important that they are accurate, or why I ask how I sound after a poetry reading (and no one answers that question, except to say “you read well” or “you sounded OK” even though “well” and “OK” are not actual sounds).
I don’t want all venues to be library-quiet, but I would like people to think about how noise travels and echoes in spaces and what might be done to accommodate those who can’t or struggle to hear. During the pandemic, when events moved online, it brought accessibility to event organisers’ attention and more effort was made to accommodate those with accessibility needs. I hope that continues as festivals and events open up again. There’s one venue in Leicester that gets it so wrong. When I have to go there, I go straight to the event without stopping for a coffee first, during the interval I do not leave to get a snack or drink and afterwards, I leave and walk to a nearby cafe bar for a drink because I cannot hear a conversation in the venue’s cafe and bar areas and the frequent interruptions from their tannoy (which I only hear as a muffled noise and have no idea what the attempted communication is about) make it difficult to focus to lip-read.
When it comes to equalities monitoring forms and the question “Do you have/consider yourself to have a disability?” I tend to tick “Prefer Not to Say” or “No” if that’s not an option. Especially if it’s part of an audience survey at an event which made zero accommodations for anyone hard of hearing. I don’t want to be responsible for the organisers thinking their event was accessible because they had a tick in their ‘disabled’ box. It’s not about every event having a BSL interpreter (although, in an ideal world, that would be good), but to encourage people to think about their audience and how organisers can meet the audience half-way, instead of expecting the audience to fit a venue that isn’t as accessible as it could be.
– What do you think of each other’s approaches to these issues?
Emma: I love Colly’s humour and am jealous of people who can write humorously. I think it helps that the surly barrista is someone we’ve all met and we welcome the idea of her getting her comeuppance. A few finely-judged details not only set the scene but build characters so they’re not just cyphers. It’s a good way of holding up a mirror and asking: which character do you identify with? How would you handle the situation? Would you have intervened and forced the barrista to serve people in the queued order? Coffee Shop manages to be both light-hearted in tone and thought-provoking.
Colly: I related 100% to Emma’s piece. Her reference to the teacher saw me immediately sitting in the 1970s Maths classroom, and Mister Taylor who talked to the blackboard and threw chalk at me. I never heard anything he said, and I didn’t know I was deaf then; I thought I was stupid… Emma’s words brought all those feelings back, and I completely empathise with her experience. I, too, struggled for a very long time with the ‘border between hard of hearing and deaf’. ‘…hear in monotone’ – oh goodness yes. I read Emma’s dialogue in this conversation too, about feeling that she’s not deaf enough and again, it hit me on a very personal level. And that feeling of being in almost no-mans-land; neither hearing nor deaf. I absolutely felt that. For me, this is all in my past tense; I decided that I would not use the label ‘hard of hearing’ as I grew deafer, I became more comfortable with the word ‘deaf’. It wasn’t easy; I speak well, I too can pass (bluff?) as a hearing person so the word ‘deaf’ took a long time to associate with, but it is right for me now.
– Is there anything that you would like to say to each other, after reading one another’s work?
Colly: I like your piece, Emma. I’m glad (if that’s the right word?) that you felt deaf enough to submit your piece, because it’s certainly how younger me felt about becoming deafer. I’d forgotten how difficult it was, and how far I’ve come in confidence as a deaf person. Your piece describes it perfectly, and I wish you well on your journey. Your writing is clear and powerful and I’d really love to read more. Thank you.
Emma: Please continue to write and share your writing. I think Colly’s background in theatre and performance is a good foundation and her ability to create characters from a clutch of telling details and capture conversation in print will take her far.
– How do you think your own poem sits within the wider collection of work in What Meets the Eye?
Emma: The strength in What Meets the Eye is its diversity of experiences, it touches on the barriers D/deaf and hard of hearing people face, on politics, emotions, prejudice, navigating a hearing world, being part of a family, and it also that there is no one definitive definition of deafness. The voices are various because they belong to people who still have a desire to communicate and be more than just a label. My poem is, rightly so, just my experience.
Colly: I think Coffee Shop sits well as a ‘diary-style-funny-we’ve-all-been-here-and-felt-that-moment’ poem, amongst the incredibly personal and touching words. I write in a relatable way, and Coffee Shop reads like a good ‘lift’ amongst the beautiful, thoughtful and rich pieces. I don’t know what I expected, and I don’t know how I thought I’d feel seeing Coffee Shop with other works, but I’m very proud and happy with the placing of it in the pages, and how the very different styles gel as an anthology – because of their very diverse approaches. A huge success, I feel – and I’m very humbled to be there with these talented deaf writers.
Published on 28 October, Where We Find Ourselves is an anthology of poems and short stories by nearly 40 writers of the Global Majority, from African, Asian, Middle Eastern, Carribean, South American, Chinese and Malay communities, writing about maps and mapping. In this book you will find stories and poems of finding oneself and getting lost, colonialism and diaspora, childhood exploration and adult homecoming.
Where We Find Ourselves is a book that is intended to start conversations and we can’t wait to hear what our reviewers and guest bloggers have to say.
You can find all the content from the blog tour here:
I’m a ghost story fan. Ever since The Omen soundtrack drifted into my bedroom aged nine, I’ve loved the shivers being scared out of me. By the time I was thirty I’d compiled a ‘must watch’ list. On it was a black and white 1963 British film called The Haunting directed by Robert Wise (yes, the same guy who did The Sound of Music). Despite its age, and despite all the tropes one would expect, ten minutes into the story my breath was short. As it continued the claustrophobia of the film was unbearable.
The ending puzzled and moved me. The main character kills herself in order to join malevolent ghosts who ‘live’ in the house (if they are in fact real and not a projection of her own psyche). She chooses death to avoid going back to an empty life with an ambivalent family. One chilling scene showed a twisted relationship with her mother and it stayed with me long after the 114 minutes had ended.
Ten years on I bought the book, entitled The Haunting of Hill House in a sale. I had no idea who that author, Shirley Jackson, was. It was not typical trashy fare. The prose was beautifully written; in turns affecting, angry, cutting, satirical and deeply, deeply unsettling. Jackson’s observations on frail human behaviour were uncannily accurate. Even more so than the film, the storyline was an outraged polemic of how restricted roles in society affected women’s mental health. I took an enormous amount out of it.
A few years later I was taking baby steps (and clichés) into my own life as a writer. After being accepted into a prestigious local group I was feeling overwhelmed. When I was offered advice on ways, I could improve my work, I was too defensive to listen. They suggested I write short stories. But having never had the experience of an inspiring anthology or collection, I was set against it.
Then a mate of mine gave me his copy of the The Lottery to read. He had come across ‘a very interesting article in the Guardian’ (why do people always say that? Sorry… different blog…) and thought here was a short story I should read. So, I read it. Mostly to stop him mithering me.
It changed my world.
Despite being first published by the New Yorker in 1948, The Lottery is a savage, unsettling tale. Its satire is unflinching. The tone is dry, so subtly mocking that I instantly wanted to emulate it. And again it was Shirley Jackson who had written it.
I sought out the book that The Lottery came from. Turned out it was unimaginatively entitled The Lottery and Other Stories. It was page after page of powerful and macabre messages, but also savagely funny. In particular one story called ‘The Tooth’ encapsulated everything I wanted to write.
In it, the protagonist is packed off by her husband to see the dentist. To help cope with the pain, she resorts to pain killers mixed with booze. As a result, her awareness is skewed. The journey she takes is drenched with fear and bizzare visions. Time and place dislocate. After she senses a malevolent presence whilst in the dentist chair, she begins to dissociate.
Jackson drags the reader from the surface of the storyline into the turbulent and distressing depths of the protagonist’s life.
The story hit me at a visceral level. After finishing it, I immediately began to write short stories. And have never stopped since.
Two other Shirley Jackson novels in particular have deepened my understanding of how to write. One, her final published book, We Have Always Lived in The Castle, is a story about the moral landscape of small-town America. A family become the target of hatred in their local community when poisoning leaves only three of the household alive. The tone of the novel is light, comic even. It could easily have become like The Addams Family. But in Jackson’s hands the bleak humour is a deconstruction of ‘family values’ and an attack on the judgemental nature of humanity. Her command of tone and language are absolute.
The other, an earlier novel, Hangsaman, is about a young woman who experiences a traumatic event in the woods and then struggles with starting her new life at college. Self-absorbed parents are neglectful to the point of being abusive. Jackson uses blurred images and incomplete narrative to describe the shattering of this poor woman’s personality and the results are harrowing but utterly believable.
Shirley Jackson died too soon at 46. In Ruth Franklin’s biography ‘A Rather Haunted Life’ she describes a writer struggling with feelings of outsidership and having to make a series of cruel compromises. She portrays Jackson as driven despite crippling self-doubt and a number of challenges presented by those around her. Many of the incidents in her life resonate deeply with my own.
Shirley Jackson’s writing has become a constant source of motivation for my own work and ambition. I keep her short stories and novels at my deskside, refer to them constantly. She is my touchstone, my inspiration, a writer whose themes are both modern and pertinent. She’s not a pleasant read, but I love her all the more for that.
This is where it all gets a bit murky, I’m afraid. What follows isn’t necessarily chronological, and in parts might not even be strictly accurate, but it’s as much of the process of writing the story as I can remember. It will probably make a lot more sense if you’ve already read Bloody Marys and a Bowl of Pho.
Given the varied nature of Hoxton Street Monster Supplies’ clientele, one of my first jobs was to work out what sort of customer my main character was. I brainstormed various monster options, and a vampire seemed like the best choice for lots of reasons; suitably formal and old-fashioned (for maximum contrast with the cool, young hipsters he was going to meet), and he could blend in with normal humans fairly easily. It was never my intention to call him Norbert, incidentally. That was supposed to be a place-holder name until I could think of something suitable but it just sort of stuck. I can’t imagine him being called anything else now.
I thought for a bit, too, about these ‘hipsters’ I knew I wanted him to meet. There would be a group of them, I knew, and they’d be quite young. Perhaps they would be art students, or from a fashion college. I knew that Suzie would be a bit different from the others, but I really didn’t know much more about her – or any of them – than that. I read up on the history of Hoxton , including its transport links, curious to find out what it would have been like when Norbert was first visiting, and brushed up on my vampire knowledge. I knew the basics – garlic, crucifixes, and so forth, but thought it might be helpful to have bit more to work with.
With the exception of the Kingsland Viaduct (the original train line servicing the area, now being used to carry the East London line), hardly any of this research made it into the final text directly. But nearly all of it informed the story in some way. I discovered, for instance, that Hoxton once had links with haberdashery and fabric, which is where the idea of Norbert’s mother being a seamstress sprang from. I imagined him first visiting the shop as a young boy accompanying his mother on her annual trips to London to stock up on material and mapped out the route they would have taken from Brighton to London Bridge, then a short walk over the river to connect with the Viaduct at Broad Street.
I also spent quite a lot of time wandering around Hoxton. I walked the route from the station to the shop, then onto a pub (where I stopped for a drink, purely in the name of research), and back to the station via a Vietnamese restaurant (more research, obviously – their pho was delicious.) I know the area fairly well, but it helped to spend an afternoon soaking everything up and trying to see it all from Norbert’s perspective. Little details like Joel’s striped t-shirt and the magazine reviews plastering the door of the restaurant came from here; I could have invented them, I suppose, but it was easier to describe what I had seen.
I knew that the tension in the story – the question I hoped would keep readers interested enough to keep reading – was to do with whether or not Norbert’s secret would be discovered. Of course all of this relied on readers knowing (or at least suspecting) that he’s a vampire from the start, so I had to plant some fairly obvious clues. I had a lot of fun doing this, and deciding what to reveal when. Early drafts of the story included more obvious clues from the beginning – some of these disappeared altogether while others (Norbert noticing Suzie’s necklace, and crossing a road to avoid garlic) ended up in different parts of the story where they ended up serving quite different purposes.
A trip to the pub part way through the story seemed like a good way to turn up the pressure, and also seemed like a realistic way for a group of twenty-somethings to spend the afternoon. Mainly, though, I just wanted to find out what happens when you get a vampire drunk. Not surprisingly, the slightly tipsy version of Norbert was a lot of fun to write.
I played with ways Norbert might reveal himself accidentally before thinking about what might happen if one of the group did find out. Would they be scared? Would they tell the others? For the longest time, I thought the ending was going to be an accidental reveal by Suzie. It might happen at the restaurant, I imagined, where there was bound to be garlic in some of the dishes. Norbert would nearly eat some, and Suzie would dive across the table to save him, or perhaps he would actually eat it and they’d have to call the paramedics……
As I kept writing, and exploring different ideas, something fell into place, and I realised what my subconscious had known all along. That this wasn’t just a story about vampires, or Vietnamese food, or even about a shop – it was a story about acceptance, and about trying to fit in. Once I realised that, everything else seemed to make sense, including Lucinda, who I had written into the beginning of the story very early on, without any idea of what she was doing there or how important she’d turn out to be. So instead of a big, dramatic finale with Norbert choking on his garlic-laden pho, it seemed more fitting to leave him exactly where we found him – on the outside of a window, looking in.
It doesn’t surprise me in the least that this is the story I ended up writing – it’s a theme I seem to return to time and time again – but if you had asked me before I started what the story would be about I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. That might sound strange but it’s how a lot of my stories evolve. I’ll start with a place, or a single character, or vaguest of concepts then write and write and write about it until – if I’m lucky – the pieces fall into place and I work out what it’s really a story about. And then I write it, and by the time I’ve finished I can’t remember ever not knowing.
If you’d like to pay a visit Hoxton Street Monster Supplies – and I can highly recommend a trip – the shop (at 159 Hoxton Street, N1 6PJ) is open from 1pm – 5pm, Tuesdays to Fridays, and 11am – 5pm on Saturdays. There’s also an online store . You might also like to visit Ministry of Stories.
Probably very good for authors who have done too many readings too!
This story started with a shop. Hoxton Street Monster Supplies really does exist; it’s the public-facing arm of a wonderful writing charity called the Ministry of Stories which launched in November 2010. Behind a secret door, carefully concealed in the wooden panelling on the shop’s back wall, young people from the local area take part in all sorts of writing projects supported by volunteers. These workshops are offered for free and are partly funded by the profits generated from the sales of items just like the ones I mention in the story – jars of thickest human snot (which tastes awfully like lemon curd), tins of fear, and even fang floss (“Oh! So you’re the place which charges a fiver for a ball of string!” I once heard a woman mutter crossly, missing the point entirely.)
It’s a model inspired by the 826 projects in the US; all over America, volunteer mentors work with young writers in spaces hidden behind shops for time-travellers, super-heroes, pirates… even spies, who can shop at Chicago’s ‘Boring Store’ safe in the knowledge that their super-secret identities will remain intact.
The shop has its own mythology, which I borrowed from extensively. Hoxton Street Monster Supplies, so the story goes, really did open in 1818 but closed down for an extensive refurbishment period, during which it went largely un-noticed by the general public (which is probably why you’d never heard of it). It re-opened its doors in November 2010, just – by coincidence – as the Ministry of Stories launched. The ball of string lady would probably be deeply suspicious about this coincidence, but who wants to listen to her?
I volunteer as a writing mentor at the Ministry, and have seen first-hand how the shop fires up the imaginations of the kids who pass through its doors. They (and we) love to play with the line between what’s make-believe and what’s real; I’ve had endless conversations about the invisible cat who sleeps in the corner, the classified advertisements pinned to the walls and the mysterious former shop-keepers whose portraits adorn the walls. So as soon as I discovered Stations still needed a Hoxton story, I jumped at the chance to write it.
At first I thought I’d write about the shop in its heyday – a story about one of the original owners, perhaps, or which explored the lives of their clientele. I soon realised, though, that it would be more fun to play with the contrast between the shop’s old fashioned image and the cool, hipster types people often associate with modern day Hoxton. A contemporary setting would also solve a problem that was starting to bother me; it meant I could write about the shop without removing too much of the mystery surrounding its origins. Lots of gaps have been left – quite deliberately, I suspect – and the longer I spent thinking about the shop’s early years the less comfortable I felt about filling those gaps in. And of course, a modern setting meant I could incorporate the Overground station which was, after all, sort of the point.
Suddenly that opening image came to me, of a customer arriving at the shop to find a sign in the window saying it was closed. Something about this just felt right – if the shop had been closed for all that time, it made perfect sense that a customers might not realise and would turn up one day to find it shut. And then what would they do?
I pitched the idea to Cherry, and was thrilled when she said yes. And then I realised I had to go away and write it, which terrified me.