Poetry Road Trip – Join us on the A470

Featured

This spring and summer we’re taking A470: Poems for the Road / Cerddi’r Ffordd on the road! Join us at one of the bilingual events below, as we visit libraries and bookshops up and down the A470 (and surrounding areas…).

  • Saturday, 28th May: Cardiff Central Library Hub, 3 – 4.30pm
    Join us at the library for readings from Kevin Mills, Tracey Rhys, Mike Jenkins, Nicholas McGaughey, Morgan Owen, Christina Thatcher, Jeremy Dixon, Sian Northey, Sîon Aled, Lowri Williams and Des Mannay. The readings will be followed by a Q and A session.
    Book your free ticket now.

  • Monday, 30th May: Storyville Books, Pontypridd, 6pm
    Nicholas McGaughey, Jeremy Dixon, Stephen Payne and Sîon Aled will read from A470 in an evening of poetry, with music and nibbles too! Book your free ticket now.

  • Tuesday, 31st May: Siop Lyfrau’r Hen Bost, Blaenau Ffestiniog, 7pm
    Simon Chandler, Sara Louise Wheeler, Haf Llewelyn, Lowri Williams and Sian Northey will read from A470 – join us for poetry and conversation in Blaenau Ffestiniog. Free to attend – find the shop here.

  • Wednesday, 1st June: Pen’rallt Gallery Bookshop, Machynlleth, 6.30pm
    Pulling up outside Senedd-Dy to stretch their legs and catch their breath, editors Sian Northey and Ness Owen will talk about how A470 came about, the process of creating a bilingual book and the translation decisions they had to make, reading some of their favourite poems from the book on the way. Poet Sara Louise Wheeler and translator Sandra Evans will also join the conversation. Find out more and book your advance ticket.

  • Thursday, 30 June: The National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, 7pm
    Join us at The National Library of Wales for an evening of bilingual poetry readings and conversation with several of the poets included in A470. Book your free ticket now.

  • Sunday, 24th July: The Poetry Pharmacy, Bishop’s Castle, 2pm (tbc)
    Meet some A470 poets at the world’s first walk-in Poetry Pharmacy. More details to come.

You can track all our events on our interactive A470 map too.

See you on the road! If you’d like more information about any of these events, please email outreach@arachnepress.com

 

 

This Isle is Full of Voices – Reimagining Shakespeare for the 21st Century

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.

Vote for Arachne Press in the Saboteur Awards!

We are really pleased to be nominated for Most Innovative Publisher in the 2022 Saboteur Awards and to have Laura Besley’s brilliant 100neHundred nominated for Best Short Story Collection.

Thank you so much to everyone who voted to get us this far. The second round of voting is now open until the 7th May and we need you to help us win!

Please vote for Arachne Press and 100neHundred in their respective categories. We highly recommend a vote for Arachne author, Emma Lee who is nominated for Best Reviewer of Literature too.

The form for the second round of voting is available here.

This nomination means a lot because we have had to innovate and adapt a lot over the past few years, and we have taken some bold steps in our publishing activity. From branching into audiobooks for the very first time, with a commitment to inclusive, quality, contemporary publishing for everyone – no matter how they read; to producing our first fully bilingual book; creating BSL videos to accompany What Meets the Eye: The Deaf Perspective and making our books about more than just the words within them – by continuing important conversations in events such as our recent symposium on Writing the Diaspora.

We intend to keep innovating too! This year we have plans for a menopause anthology that will particularly represent LGBT+ and global majority women (submissions are open now!), and lots of writing workshops that will help us continue to give opportunities to writers from under-represented communities, or who are living in geographically isolated locations.

That’s enough about us… if you need a reminder of how excellent 100neHundred is you can listen to an audiobook extract here, read some of the Laura Besley’s favourite reviews here or buy a copy here.

Thank you for your votes – we’ll have our fingers crossed.

The Saboteur Awards have been running since 2011, we were last nominated (and won!) in 2014 with the anthology Weird Lies.

Follow this years awards on Twitter: #SaboteurAwards and #sabawards22

It’s our 10th Year!

10 years ago, almost to the day, I started planning Arachne Press, buying the independent publishers guide from IPG, talking to people about names (see the video on our home page for the joy of choosing a name for a publishing house), and contacting printers to ask possibly naive questions.

Last year, Neil Lawrence, one of our authors, asked if he could interview me, as the tail end of all the author conversations we’d recorded in lockdown. We then got too busy to edit it. But with our 10th Anniversary looming (August) I’ve put some work in and finished the edit. A lot of it is about me as a writer and will be used elsewhere, but this section is about starting Arachne and my role as editor, and keeping going.

Favourite memories of Solstice Shorts

Solstice Shorts – our annual celebration of original poetry, stories and music for the shortest day – is rapidly approaching. We asked Solstice regular, poet and writer Rob Walton to share some memories of the festival, and accompanying anthologies, from years gone by. This year’s theme is Words from the Brink – writing and music in response to the climate crisis.

Rob Walton: I count myself lucky to have been included in more than one of the Solstice Shorts books, and fortunate indeed to have had my work performed/read by others. It was a great thrill to hear ‘Words on Paper’, a story of which I’m very fond, read aloud in Carlisle. It’s a story that’s close to my heart, and I’m chuffed it was recorded for posterity and also appeared in print.

Ben Brinicombe reads Words on Paper by Rob Walton, BSL translation by Karen Edmondson

I’ve definitely enjoyed seeing some of my more, er interesting pieces reach a range of audiences – I wonder what the crowds (I’m guessing) in Lisbon and Maryport made of ‘The Dowager Duchess of Berwick-upon-Tweed May or May Be Bottling It’? I’ve written micro-fictions shorter than that title!

This year’s offering, ‘Mr King Has Decided to Pursue Other Avenues’, is inspired by a long-standing commitment to environmental change and, possibly, that time I had to leave my primary school class behind on the beach trip when I was stung by a weaver fish. These things stay lodged somewhere and appear, transformed, years later…

Read an extract from ‘Mr King Has Decided to Pursue Other Avenues’:

It was a liberal and progressive school – some would say slack and lackadaisical – and when Mr King said he wanted to stay at the beach at the end of the trip, they wished him well and happily set off without him. It was almost time for the long holiday, and when he wasn’t there to take registration the following morning they arranged temporary cover, and later replaced him with somebody younger with a similar name and the same tattooist. (Mr Prince would be pleased to get the job because Hokusai’s expertly inked The Great Wave off Kanagawa, which covered all of his back, had been very expensive. And quite painful. Also, he knew it would be a star turn on a staff night out.

Words from the Brink is available to pre-order from our online shop.

Buy your tickets for Solstice Shorts 2021 on Eventbrite.

 

What Meets the Eye? – The Writers’ Perspective

We talked to poets Colly Metcalfe and Emma Lee about what it means to be published in What Meets the Eye? and how both their works tackle perceptions of D/deafness and disability.

What Meets the Eye? The Deaf Perspective

– 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.

Colly Metcalfe

– 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).

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.

Emma Lee

– 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.  

What Meets the Eye? The Deaf Perspective is available now. Order your copy from our online shop.

Tickets available for Solstice Shorts Festival

This year’s Solstice Shorts theme is Words from the Brink – stories and poems and music in response to the climate crisis.

We decided (reluctantly) that an in-person event would take us too close to ‘the brink’ this year, so we are online again, but with an interactive celebration of everything the planet has to offer, and everything we threaten her with.

Almost everything will be performed live – we have a musician in the wrong time zone – with real live actors reading to you, including Solstice Shorts stalwarts, Sophie Aldred and Grace Cookey-Gam.

More info as we finalise the event.

You can join in – there will be a post-interval open mic session, ON THE THEME of climate change…possibly two, we are still fine tuning.

TICKETS AND SUPPORTERS

Tickets available on Eventbrite
In a break from tradition we are having to charge for the event, as we haven’t been able to crowd fund as a result of fund raising for our very expensive BSL project. Remember you only need one ticket per device, not per person, so if you want to throw a watch party on your sofa, that’s incredible value.

We need to sell every ticket to break even, so we have squeezed a lot of what would have been in the crowd fund into the ‘add on’ merchandise bit of Eventbrite, so if you would like a T-shirt, Badge, Book or recipe, grab them there.

WE ARE ALSO running a pay-it-forward scheme so people can buy a ticket for a stranger – we will release these free/ half price tickets weekly, as they are donated, so if £8 would be a stretch for you, keep checking on Eventbrite…

Solstice is a time for feeding up against the long cold winter, lighting fires, telling tall tales, and promising the sun that we want it back, and the planet that we will try much, much harder.
The book and festival deal with serious issues but with hope at the core, and we intend to have fun.

we are making this a Feast of a Festival – you can get the original recipe for our stunning Solstice Cake and bake your own to eat along with us, but we’d also like you to share your favourite solstice or climate change themed recipes – or fake recipe books – and pictures of them! We had a quick session this morning to figure out what we mean by this – so preserves and pickles for the long haul is one suggestion, or low impact treats for the planet. if these can be presented as poems all to the good.

We plan to share serving suggestions for every section of the event when we publish the full programme, so if you want to, you can make this a real-life celebration too.

BOOKS should arrive sometime next week so place you pre-order now! Official publication is 16th December.
And don’t forget there’s an audiobook coming – voiced by Sophie Aldred and  Cal-I Jonel – we are just putting the finishing touches to it.

Myths and Selkies – a writers guide?

Author Jackie Taylor and author-editor Cherry Potts talk about a shared love of mythology, and writing about selkies.

Strange Waters

Jackie’s novel in short stories, Strange Waters, features selkies, and Cherry recently re-published Fish-fish, a selkie story in the brilliant magazine Mermaids Monthly. Fish-fish was first performed at Liars’ League (read by Math Jones – watch the perfomance here)

copyright Jackie Taylor

Cherry:

What was your first introduction to the selkie myths, Jackie?

Jackie: A couple of years ago, I was standing on a cliff overlooking Porthcurno beach in West Cornwall with some friends on a beautiful September day. There were lots of people in the sea below us – kids messing around in the surf and belly boarding, and some serious surfers, and dogs running in and out of the water. Lots of screaming and laughing.  The sea was crystal clear and looking down, we could see, amongst all this activity, a pair of seals weaving around the people in the water – so graceful, and so powerful. And no-one down on the beach was aware of this – they couldn’t see what we could see from our perch above them.  It was an extraordinary thing to witness. One of my friends started to sing a selkie lament, a song full of beauty and yearning. The seals didn’t stop and look up! – nothing like that – but it was one of those moments.

Cherry: Ah… now I’ve done actual on the ground (strand?) research into this. Seals don’t like seas songs, (bored by them I suspect). My wife Alix and I spent a blissful fortnight in Shetland staying on a clifftop farm, and trundled down to the edge every evening. One time there was a seal sitting out on a flat rock which we nicknamed ‘the cake stand’, and we tried singing to this seal. No response to sea shanties, no response to yearning songs of the sea (no idea what our hosts thought about all  this, I’m sure they could hear – their prize bull definitely could!). So then we tried songs from the shows, and The Street Where You Live garnered attention, so we carried on, after half an hour of barking and flipper waving, and the seal sticking its head into the water, we had Sixteen seals, some hauled out on the rocks, some just bobbing like corks, gawping at us – and I am convinced, laughing their heads off – as we worked through the whole of Guys and Dolls!

Jackie: That’s fabulous. What a great image. I’m definitely going to try out a few show tunes next time I see a seal – I’ll let you know is Cornish seals react the same way!

Jackie: I live near the sea and I’m lucky enough to see seals regularly. I was swimming on my own last year, at first light. No-one else was around and suddenly a seal surfaced just a few yards in front of me. We looked at each other for what seemed like an eternity but was probably, well, thirty seconds. There’s something about a seal’s eyes – so expressive, so sad, so old. It’s very easy to imagine how there might be a connection between us.

Cherry: What a magical experience. I’ve never got close to a seal, but I can’t help imagining they have a sense of humour – dangerous anthropomorphism!

Jackie: Indeed! So seals are part of my world, but selkies didn’t appear in my short stories until I was bringing Strange Waters together. There was a strong thread through the stories of women wanting to be somewhere else, living a different sort of life. Living in Cornwall sounds like a perfect existence, but it’s not all Poldark and cream teas! There are a lot of people who live here but long to get away, for all sorts of reasons, so I was interested in exploring that. Tension between domesticity and family, and the call of freedom and the wild sea, are at the heart of selkie stories, and this was perfect for Strange Waters.

copyright Jackie Taylor (you’ll have to imagine the show tunes)

Jackie: So- I LOVED your story Cherry!

Cherry: Thank you! It’s a favourite of mine

Jackie: How did you come to selkies?

Cherry: I honestly can’t remember – I was an obsessive adolescent reader of folk tales, (of anywhere, my local library had an excellent collection) and while I can’t abide the vampire/ werewolf side of things, the water spirits draw me in. There’s a Welsh folk tale about a woman from a lake (the source of the Ystwyth, if memory serves – I’ve been there and it is a very strange place, very …quiet, in a not altogether happy way) she marries a farmer on the proviso that if he strikes her three times the game is up. Of course he does, and she goes back to the water. That one stayed with me, not strictly selkie-lore but connected. I’ve read loads or retellings of selkie myths, but no direct source material that I can remember, although I must have done.

Cherry: Your selkies are clearly Cornish, and I wonder if you think there are regional differences (you don’t have to answer this one, but I am genuinely interested!)

Jackie: I’m no expert, but one thing that struck me when I started reading around the subject was how many different selkie stories there are, and how widespread, which I think says something about how the nature of these tales resonate so strongly – romance, tragedy, longing and love, all mixed in with the symbolism of the sea. This is fertile ground for story-telling and lends itself to reinterpretations and reimaginings.

I’m not sure how ‘authentic’ a Cornish selkie is. Our native merman is the Bucca Dhu, not a friendly soul, I’m afraid!

Cherry: And the Mermaid of Zennor of course!

Cherry: You could have written this book as entirely near future climate fiction, but the selkies really add something, without being front and centre – what was the decision making for this?

Jackie: The intention was always to have contemporary issues sitting right at the heart of the collection. The selkie-ness wasn’t an add-on, but a linking thread between some of the stories, not centre stage, but present, adding another layer. I wanted the mythology to be part of the background, another element of contemporary life in Cornwall. We live in the midst of stone circles and fogous. King Arthur lived just over the road (allegedly). People come to visit Cornwall because we are ‘steeped’ in myth and legend, and it’s easy for that richness to overtake and swamp all our other stories. It’s become a bit of a mantra, but I’m interested in what’s behind the postcard.

Cherry: I spent my adolescence reading about King Arthur thanks William Mayne Earthfasts, and the spectacularly good Merlin books by Mary Stewart, but despite visiting Cornwall several times I’ve never been to Tintagel! A dawdle round Glastonbury was enough to put me off the tourist sites for life. Fogous and stone circles, on the other hand, fascinate me. And ‘cup and ring’ marked stones. If there’s an ancient monument on a map I will detour to check it out.

upright stone part of a stone circle on a hillside more hills behind

Castlerigg. copyright Cherry Potts

Cherry: I loved Pelt, the story in the collection which most closely examines the Selkie concept, with Marissa yearning, not for the sea, but the hinterland as far from shore as she can get; but there are constant links through her daughter and great granddaughter as the strain gets weaker, but keeps surfacing, how did you decide which elements to keep for the later generations, and how much do you think Gilly, for example, realises that this is what is going on?

Jackie: I’m glad you liked this story. It was a classic ‘what if?’…what if I turned this on its head, and my selkie was desperate to settle down with a human partner and embrace a life of land-based domesticity, and didn’t want to escape back to her wild life?

Cherry: Although its not the fisherman/farmer’s wife life she’s after is it? the bright lights of the city are what she’s after, just like Chloe and Grace and Gilly…

Jackie: I like the idea of a residual tug of the sea on the heart, rolling down the generations, surfacing in different ways. I think Gilly is aware of her heritage, but in a background way. This is just one of many of Gilly’s stories, something she’s aware of but, actually, she has other, more pressing things to think about.

I do think it’s something we see in ourselves – a pull towards a particular type of landscape or environment. The sea is definitely my element. ( And did I mention that I have slight webbing between my fingers? )

Jackie: Fish-Fish has a strong tang of salty sea air around it; the descriptions of sea and weed and pelt are gorgeous. Is the sea your element? How do landscapes/seascapes influence your writing?

Cherry: If I could, I would live by water, but it would have to be the sea or a river, lakes make me uneasy – I like moving water… and salt marshes! Landscapes are very important to me, some places have a very special atmosphere and I take strong likings and antipathies to places, including ones that have been severely manipulated for good or ill by humankind. Some mountains take my breath away, some scare me. Wast Water made me shudder, I had to be dragged away from a particular wood in Wales… I have a hatred of London City Airport seen from the air – so bleak – a recent garden visit had me planning how I could live there!

copyright Cherry Potts

Writing wise, it varies, I’ll never not know where a story is set, at least in broad terms, but some stories require and lean on a setting. Sometimes I have to research to rationalise the landscape in my mind and pin it somewhere real, sometimes it can stay implausibly mythic.

When Fish-fish was being performed at Liars’ League, Katy Darby who was directing, asked where it was set, so that Math could settle on an accent, and I realised that when I started writing it had been the US eastern seaboard (somewhere I’ve never been!) because the painter was American; and that because it was the 20s,  I’d said it was a ‘dry’ town, but that it had morphed, through the character of Joel’s wife, into  Western Scotland – plenty of selkie myths there, and dry towns too. I love that about writing, the way the introduction of a character can swing the whole shape and heft of a story in another direction.

Fish-fish actually came from a painting, Mr. and Mrs. Chester Dale Dining Out by Guy Pene du Bois (1924). In it, a very rounded and sleek couple are sitting uncomfortably at a restaurant table being observed by a waiter. I was struck by the hands, fingers together and rather podgy, and wondered why this otherwise well-executed painting focussed so much attention on these poorly drawn hands, and the idea dropped into my head – of course, they are selkies! I looked again at the waiter, they were ALL selkies.

Jackie: You’ve taken a selkie story and given it a different twist; Joel is a male selkie who marries a woman and settles on land. Although there are male selkie tales, I suspect it is much more usual to have a selkie woman centre stage. Was that decision about gender something that drove the story from the outset, or was it something that came out in the writing?

Cherry: There was such an ambiguous look on the waiter’s face, a mingling of longing and dislike and jealousy, and Joel was born fully-formed. I didn’t know quite what his tragedy was as I started writing, but it quickly took shape. It was a fast write, that one. Unusually for me, I didn’t go back and check the ‘rules’ for selkie folk. The absolutely key scene for me in turning it on its head, was when Joel offers his wife his pelt and she turns him down in horror at the idea of controlling him. Selkie mythology is all about men stealing a woman’s means of escape; coercive control in a nutshell, and I knew she would never do that, even when offered the opportunity.

Jackie: A question about craft: I often struggle with the endings of short stories, writing numerous versions, trying to get the right balance between offering the reader enough information for a satisfying conclusion, and not tying everything up in too neat a package. Fish-Fish has a perfect ending. Did this fall easily onto the page or did you have to search for this ending?

Cherry: I didn’t know the end when I started, but it was easy to find. As soon as Joel witnesses the couple under the pier I knew they were somehow connected, that they were there for him, but that it had to be his decision. It was thrilling to write, the idea and the solution rolled out in front of me as I wrote it, with almost no revision. I try to know what the end is early on, but some stories won’t be told where to go and take their own path, so that isn’t particularly usual, and I have a hard drive full of stories for which I can’t get a satisfactory ending.

Jackie: Thinking about the recycling of myths into contemporary pieces of writing, what mythologies are you drawn to in your writing, apart from selkies? Is this something you’ve explored before? Do you have any favourite modern retellings?

Cherry: Dragons! Mermaids! Gorgons! Sirens! Giants! Dryads, Naiads, Sphinxes, Norns (I might have made them up – very scary). Valkyries, Graeae, Fates and Furies! Elementals of all shapes and sizes… I wouldn’t swear to it, but it’s likely Joel is one of only a handful of male protagonists I’ve let into my mythological universe, there have been a couple of inept knights but apart from that, mainly women, or at any rate female creatures. I have a fondness for Jane Yolen’s trolls, and Tanith Lee’s various monsters, and Adele Geras has a way with a Greek myth or fairy tale that I enjoy. You’ll notice this list includes childrens books (and many are out of print!). Sometimes writers for older children do a much better job than those writing for adults. Among those writing for adults, Neil Gaiman is good at a mythologically inspired story – I wouldn’t call them retellings though. I’ve moved further and further away from that retelling thing myself, it’s more about picking an element from the smorgasbord of tales so good they’ve survived orally for millennia, and roughing it up a bit, giving an old story a firm shake by the scruff and seeing what falls out; and it’s usually the women, especially the voiceless, overlooked or denigrated.

The fact that I spend so much of my writing brain-space on it does mean that I am hypercritical of other people’s retellings – have they read closely enough, pushed far enough, twisted wildly enough? I can be a bit impatient with yet another… whichever myth is flavour of the month.

I’m hard to please, so your selkies had a tough audition, and passed with honours.

Arachne Poet Jeremy Dixon at Live From the Butchery Online, 2nd January 2022

If you’re looking ahead to booking literary events for the new year, pop Arachne poet Jeremy Dixon’s reading in your diary.  More details to follow, but Jeremy (A Voice Coming From Then) will appear as part of this monthly, award-winning series of online readings run by Poetry and Prose Magazine Ink, Sweat and Tears.  He will be reading alongside Kim Moore.

You can learn more about the series and their current events here and follow it on Facebook here.

 

 

Mapping the path to safety

To begin our Where We Find Ourselves blog tour, Arachne Press Director, Cherry Potts shares her thoughts on the theme of ‘Maps and Mapping’:

Maps are objects of pleasure and anticipation for me, promises of holidays and beautiful in their own right, but they used to be safety blankets – I went through a long period of agoraphobia and the only way I could take a ‘stroll’ in the countryside (or anywhere else, really) was if I knew exactly where I was going, what obstacles were along the way and how long it would take – getting lost was something I literally had nightmares about. I’m better at it now, but it’s always me with the map in my pocket, if no longer clutched in an anxious grip.

So when Laila Sumpton suggested ‘Maps and Mapping’ as the focus for our global majority anthology, Where We Find Ourselves, I said yes almost by reflex. As we settled into thinking about why, exactly, we thought this a good idea, there was a lot to cover. Arachne has a history with what is apparently called Psychogeography – not planned, but one of our books is on the reading list at a university, so I’m told – these were geographically rooted (routed?) books of stories set in London, and along the east London Overground. I like that sort of thing. But this was different. We didn’t want to over-dictate what our authors wrote about, and wanted to see what would come up. We were hoping  for stories of home, belonging, leaving, journeys, identity, borders, invasion, exile … not of a particular place, but any place that the author or poet felt strongly about. And we got them, especially the search for places of safety – and we got a story about getting lost on a country walk, so that was my personal nightmare ticked off too.

Somehow this map idea morphed into an almost series. Not quite enough of one to say book one of… (although if pushed I will!) but four (so far) conceptually linked books.

Next up, in November, is What Meets the Eye? The Deaf Perspective, an anthology of  poems and stories from Deaf, deaf and Hard of Hearing writers.

About twelve years ago I studied Neurolinguistic Programming (one of the things that helped overcome my agoraphobia). One of the basic tenets of NLP is that people have a linguistic preference that reveals how they experience the world, showing itself in use of words to do with one specific sense. Most people are visual or kinaesthetic (touch, motion, emotion), far fewer auditory, etc; although the transmit preference may not be the same as the receive preference. I spent some time wondering if I dare stick my hand up and say what about people who don’t have access to all those things? I never did, I found the large group intimidating, but I spent a lot of time thinking about it. When I started learning BSL, my doubts were confirmed, and confounded as well. So when I was discussing the title of a book with movement as its theme (very loose connection to maps!) with editors Lisa Kelly and Sophie Stone, I was on about the language of movement or the movement of language, and Sophie entirely disagreed and said that BSL is a language of sight. In my kinaesthetically orientated way I had been thinking about transmitting communication and Sophie was thinking about receiving it. Which is how we ended up with the title What Meets the Eye? The Deaf Perspective.

Alongside these two anthologies I had been talking to Ness Owen and Sian Northey about a bilingual Welsh-English poetry anthology for March next year. Sian came up with the brilliant idea of poems about/inspired by the iconic north-south route, the A470. Disclosure – my Welsh is limited to what can generally be found on a road sign, and saying hello and thank you, so an appropriate theme for me! Out came my maps – of course – and yes, I had driven bits of that road.

We won’t have to translate the title, Sian said. Wrong – because we’ve ended up with a subtitle, Poems for the Road/Cerrdi’r Ffordd.

Nothing screams maps more than a book about a road, and I spent a lot of time looking up places referenced in the poems, and getting to understand the topography of both road and poems. I can’t wait to drive it again, boring my wife silly as I point out places and say oh that’s in so-and-so’s poem. We have a fantasy about hiring a bus to do a book tour along the length of the road from Cardiff to Llandudno. The irony of this, in light of the next book, is not lost on me.

Before we get to the A470, we have another book – the Solstice Shorts Festival anthology, Words from the Brink out in December in time for the festival. Our initial call out had the loose concept of time is running out, and we wanted work that addressed the climate crisis.

At risk of sounding like a spare part from Dr Who, Solstice Shorts is always about time, and the festival has travelled around most of the UK, and even got to Portugal one year, so I thought we ought to be able to get a map theme into our overarching time concept. This year’s festival itself is still very much up in the air at the moment. Venues are difficult, and should we really be trying to have an in-real-life event at all?

Perhaps the link to maps is tenuous, except, actually, it isn’t. This book encompasses the whole Earth – viewed from space by acquisitive or curious aliens, in her personification as Gaia and in the microcosm of a single plant or butterfly. Our authors map their way through climate crisis to disaster, or renewal.

We are on the brink. A gnat’s wink in either direction can make the difference. Which direction  will we take?

You can follow the blog tour for Where We Find Ourselves until 30 October.