Having my short story published in midlife in the anthology, Where We Find Ourselves has been an extraordinary experience which inspired me greatly. It re-ignited my passion for writing by exposing me to authors and poets of different ages, races, and life experiences with amazing stories to tell.
Whilst I was a shy child and spent a lot of time ‘in my head’ I had a vivid imagination and enjoyed making up stories to entertain myself and my siblings. However, the idea of being a writer was never discussed as realistic career option for someone like me. My dad wanted me to leave school after my ‘O’ levels and get a job to start contributing to the household, but my English teacher thought I should stay on to do A levels. As a compromise I went to a local college to do a one-year secretarial course – something solid and useful. My dad’s attitude was not uncommon to immigrant parents who want a better life for their offspring. He thought that one’s life purpose was to get a good safe job and do that until you retire in 40 years’ time, and only then can you do what youreallywant to do. Fortunately, my secretarial training led me to roles in HR in the voluntary and public sector which I do enjoy. However, my love of writing has never left me. When my daughter was at school, I often found myself living vicariously through her schoolwork: reading the literature she was set and taking any opportunity to help with her essays and course work!
It was only when she went to Birmingham University that I thought about writing seriously. Whenever I visited her, I would come away inspired by the university buildings and lecture theatres and thought how marvellous it would be to have my own further education – even if it felt slightly delayed.
So, I signed up to take a creative writing beginners’ class at the same college I went to more than 30 years ago! As I waited nervously at enrolment for the first class, I couldn’t help but feel my age, seeing the last straggle of childlike adults leaving for the day in boisterous groups. Many seemed younger than my daughter, and it made me wonder what I had let myself in for! However, once I was in the class this feeling dissipated as I found myself surrounded by mostly women of a similar age to me or older, some who had, like myself, come straight from work, while others arrived after looking after grandchildren or spending the day in less strenuous retirement pursuits such as gardening or catching up with friends.
Many had files of manuscripts honed over the years, or folders full of poetry or prose. The course taught me to express myself and to give myself permission to carve out time for completing writing prompts, which seemed to give my writing some legitimacy and feel less self-indulgent. I learned a huge amount from the tutor but also my classmates. One woman in particular encouraged me to not to downplay my ambitions. I remember she encouraged me to have my photo taken in the class when I was placed third in a competition. As my natural reticence took over, I remember her saying to me “Oh go on up there, will you? When you’re a published writer you’ll look back on this….” Her words seemed unbelievable to me at the time.
The range of writing styles showcased in class was also eye-opening. I think that there are preconceptions of what women of a certain age want to write and read. Rather than just cosy romances we heard YA fiction, folklore and fairy tales, crime drama as well as inspiring lived experience stories.
After the beginners’ class, I felt emboldened to take the Intermediate class and then joined Watford Writers to continue my writing journey. I now have my own folder of work, and the start of a manuscript!
It has been inspiring to witness so many women expressing themselves creatively at a time of life when it has traditionally been that we come less visible and active as the years go by. I am looking forward to contributing to the voices and adding my own stories to the discourse.
You might have seen us in The Guardian online this weekend – in a piece about older women writers, the work that Arachne Press does to seek, support and promote older women’s voices, and the gradual sea change that we can see happening in the publishing industry as a whole. We were delighted with the article, but it is only the beginning of the conversation. Here Cherry Potts, owner and founder of Arachne Press, shares some more extensive thoughts about publishing talented, witty, clever and creative older women writers:
In the 10 years we have been publishing we have seen a noticeable shift in all kinds of diversity publishing with specialist publishers such as Incandescent, Jacaranda and Peepal Tree that I’ve not seen since the 80’s. We at Arachne are not specialist in our diversity aims, we are inclusive, and that includes older women. We have always actively sought, supported and promoted older women, and valued what they have to say. The existence of women’s writing networks and magazines like Mslexia (which has been there for 24 years) have made it easier for older women to find publishers like us. It started with independent presses, like us, who intentionally hold space for writers from underrepresented communities. We have always filled gaps we see missing in the commercial publishing industry; the ripple from that has been working through to the industry as a whole, it’s a steady improvement but there is plenty of room for more.
For many women it is impossible to focus on writing until later in life, women’s lives are trammelled with work and caring – children, if they have them, parents almost inevitably as they get older, it takes a strong woman to say no to looking after elderly parents – or a rich one – grandchildren… the list goes on; and battering away at the glass ceiling (should we be so lucky as to not be working in some less inspiring job just to make enough to live on, as the gender pay gap still exists, with all that implies) there isn’t a lot of time for writing or pursuing a publishing deal. Sadly these responsibilities do still fall to women, and because they are usually earning less, they are less able to provide paid for alternatives, and are more likely the one in a heterosexual couple to give up work to care for whoever needs it.
Our open anthology calls consistently attract older women, but we’ve noticed an increase over the years, which led to the idea of our menopause anthology, collecting stories and poems from women in peri/post/menopause exploring the massive changes in their lives that occur as a result. (We will be announcing the contributors on 8th March, International Women’s Day.)
For women who were children during World War II, teenagers in the 50s, young wives or career women in the 60’s, feminists in the 70s, peace campaigners in the 80’s and so on (and some still campaigning!) there is so much they have to bring, and living in their women’s bodies, and coming to terms with all the changes that involves. They are looking back at those changes with the eye of experience and aren’t squeamish about talking about it, as many younger women might be.
Now feels like the right moment for taking all women writers seriously, refusing to conform to the traditional packaging of ‘women’s fiction’, and actively promoting radical, edgy writing – and forms of writing – from a demographic that has a tendency, in the face of the evidence, to be seen as a bit safe, perhaps even cosy. Our older women writers are far from cosy, and they aren’t just old; they are lesbians, (Kate Foley & Jane Aldous) they are disabled (Kate Foley, Jane Aldous and Jennifer A McGowan), they started their lives in this country as refugees (Anna Fodorova) they live somewhere isolated (Clare Owen, Ness Owen, Jackie Taylor) and are (increasingly) from the global majority (Anita Goveas, Seni Seneviratne, Yvie Holder, Victoria Ekpo, Lesley Kerr, Lorraine Mighty). These are just the tip of the iceberg.
Often we are publishing women in their 60’s plus, who are still writing, or just beginning to write, or more specifically just beginning to publish, having written all their lives. These women are not coming straight into a publishing deal from an MA in creative writing, or off the back of a career writing in TV, or film, or radio, or journalism where they have already have the right contacts to find a deal and get a raft of reviews (and more power to those who do). We are talking about the women who are onto their nth career (Kate Foley worked as a midwife, a cleaner, and an archaeological conservator before finally publishing (as I did, with Onlywomen Press), and won a prize with her first book. In fact I read Kate’s first collection in manuscript! When I started Arachne Press it was with the hope that I would publish writers like Kate, and hers was the first poetry collection we published. We have just published her eleventh collection, Saved to Cloud, having published two previously The Don’t Touch Garden and A Gift of Rivers.
Saved to Cloud
The story here isn’t really that we publish older women (why wouldn’t we?) but that they come to us. It isn’t about debuts, many of the poets (particularly) whom we publish are award winning writers with several collections to their names. But they still send work for our open call anthologies, and that makes space for the debut writers to be published alongside them, and for us to make discoveries.
It’s about women writing quirky, difficult, often angry poetry and short fiction.
It’s about the writers choosing to send us their work because they recognise that we will find a way to overcome the difficulties they face with time and mobility and geographic isolation and anxiety – or whatever it is that gets in their way. We have worked hard at creating a community for our writers, putting them in touch with each other, inviting them on writing weekends, asking them to be guest editors, running workshops, and enabling them to run workshops and panels to discuss what matters to them, work together, explore, make friends, raise their profile… and confidence, if they need it. We don’t start from the assumption that older women (or anyone, even debut authors) need support, but it’s there if it is.
We don’t just publish the anthology, if a writer engages with us, we take an interest in who they are and what they do – their multifaceted careers have found us translators and cover artists among our writers, and anyone who really impresses us gets ‘the email’ saying what else do you have?
We are proud to be one of the primary presses publishing older women and their incisive, imaginative and glorious stories.
Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, when we remember the six million Jewish men, women and children murdered in the Second World War, and all victims of persecution and genocide around the world.
Author Anna Fodorova grew up in a family where everyone except her parents had been killed in the Holocaust. Both in her career as a therapist, and as an author, Anna explores the notion and experience of being a Second Generation Holocaust Survivor. To mark Holocaust Memorial Day, and to remember all the lost families, Anna has shared this blog post with us.
In 1968 I was a student at the Prague College of Applied Arts. Being a Jew in post-war Czechoslovakia seemed then like a dangerous secret, but it was an exciting time – there was hope that the reform of the totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe was possible, and it was the first year that we were allowed to travel and work in the West. When a fellow student showed me the Butlin’s holiday camp brochure picturing a palm tree against the sea, I imagined myself as a barmaid somewhere in the Bognor Riviera and, though I didn’t speak a word of English, I felt I had what it took: I was young, had long hair, wore a miniskirt and intended to purchase some stick-on eyelashes as soon as I got paid.
On arrival in Bognor Regis, the first thing I noticed was that Butlin’s was surrounded by a tall barbed-wire fence and powerful searchlights. I was issued with a uniform and a card with a mugshot of me holding a number that I had to show every time I left or entered the perimeters of the camp. I slept on a bunk bed, and at night I watched the security guards walk around with their scary dogs.
Bizarre though my experience in Butlin’s was, I remained blind to its obvious echoes. I left Butlin’s hoping to hitch-hike around England but then the Russians invaded my country, and I became an emigrant.
Years later, when I started to train as a psychotherapist I gathered the courage to talk about what it felt like to be born into a family where everyone except my parents had been killed in the Shoa. Around the same time I came across the term ‘Second Generation Holocaust Survivors’. When I mentioned it to my mother she looked at me surprised: What second generation? You were born after it was all over, nothing happened to you.
I became puzzled by that nothing. The nothing that we carry inside us, and that formed us in our childhood. I attended conferences about the transgenerational transmission of trauma where, to my amazement I met people who, though coming from different countries and circumstances, had similar experiences of silence, denial and guilt. I published a paper about it in Psychodynamic Practice journal called Mourning by proxy: Notes on a conference, empty graves and silence. The same journal also printed another paper of mine called Lost and Found: The fear and thrill of loss. As a part of my research I visited the London Transport Lost property office and, seeing piles of toys, shoes, suitcases, push chairs (what happened to the child?) and other personal belongings who lost their owners, my internal associations were no longer a mystery to me.
I realized that the loss of someone or something and the search for them was going to be a theme that stayed with me. Another theme I wanted to explore was heritage, both psychological, and the one we carry in our genes.
My new novel, In the Blood, explores the impact of history on the personal lives of three generations – a mother, a daughter and a grandmother. My main protagonist, Agata, is the only child of Czech/Jewish parents. She grew up in Prague, believing that all her relatives perished in the Holocaust. Now living in London with her English husband and their daughter, Agata discovers astonishing news: not everyone died.
Like Agata, I too believed that my mother was the only member of her family to survive the war. When, to my incredulity, I found out that it wasn’t quite so, I tried to understand why this was kept a secret. What was there to hide?
Eventually I realised what that secret was: it was trauma, but in my novel Agata sets out to discover ‘the truth’.
Through her subsequent search for her surviving relatives, she meets a young man, the grandson of a Nazi who is writing a thesis about the transmission of trauma to the descendants of the perpetrators as well as the victims. They form an odd relationship. Soon Agata’s pursuit turns into an all-consuming obsession that alienates everyone around her. Yet for Agata, despite her quest risking the tearing apart of not only the family she already has, but her very own identity, finding out what happened in the past seems vital, the past that we all need to understand, whether that is to come to terms with the transmission of trauma, or as in Agata’s case, to put names and dates and faces to all the lost families, and to discover the not so lost.
To find out more about Holocaust Memorial Day you can visit www.hmd.org.uk. At 4pm today people across the UK will take part in a national moment for HMD by lighting candles and putting them in their windows to remember those who were murdered, and to stand against prejudice and hatred. You can take part as an individual and share a photo of your candle on social media using #LighttheDarkness.
To celebrate our tenth anniversary we are having an online festival throughout January 2023, mostly weekends and Thursdays, although a couple of Tuesdays and Fridays have snuck in.
We invited our authors and friends to run the events they wanted to see, to set their own prices and number of tickets. It’s quite an eclectic mix, readings, discussions and workshops for writers, and about writing, or the business of being a writer. We invite you to join us! Visit the Eventbrite Collection
Sunday 15/01/2023 15:00-16:30 Lowri Williams Translating poetry from Welsh into English (workshop)
suitable for advanced learners of Welsh and native speakers.
10 places – pay what you can £3/£5/£8 details and tickets
Tuesday 24/01/23 18:00-19:30 The Business of writing– The Society of Authors This is very kindly being run for us by two of the coordinators of the Society of Authors Poetry & Spoken Word group: Johanna Clarke and Mathilde Zeeman
It’s National Poetry Day and the theme this year is The Environment. To celebrate, we asked poet Claire Booker about her relationship with the natural world, and the way she represents it in her new collection, A Pocketful of Chalk:
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t in awe of the natural world: its endlessly creative
hutzpah; the refreshing disinterest it has in our little human concerns.
A Pocketful of Chalk came together from what I could see was a build-up of poems
connected to natural phenomena. By nature I also include the dream world, which arises
from our inner natures. Dreams are forces inside us which we ignore at our peril, just
like the forces outside us.
Five years ago I moved to the village of Rottingdean just outside Brighton in East
Sussex. I’d spent three decades living and working in south London, which is
particularly blessed with woodland and open spaces. Urban nature is a force for change,
because it offers millions of people a relationship with the wild which they wouldn’t
otherwise have. By virtue of its fragile hold within the city, urban nature is also a potent
symbol of what we’re losing.
Moving to a rural, farming area, placed me right in the middle of wildness (it can get
pretty wooly up there on the Downs if a storm’s coming!). But even this wildness is
under threat. During this year’s drought, the wheat fields were scorched, newly planted
woodland saplings dropped their leaves, there were tiny, misshapen black berries. Then
the rains came in biblical proportions, and top soil was lost.
As humans, we’re in a unique position. We’re part of nature, but also the enemy outside
So what, as a poet, can I do about this? Very little, in reality, but even that little is worth
going for. Poetry can take you to the heart-beat of emotion. It can remind people of
what they’ve lost, or fear losing, or want to fight for. Above all, poetry offers quiet
contemplation, an enrichment of understanding – questions that could do with answers,
answers that need questioning.
The environment is us, it’s our relationship with each other, made manifest. We live in a
rushed, frenetic, some might say, frantic world. Poetry can help us draw breath, stop,
consider, appreciate. I find that by simply walking along the sea front, or up on the
Downs, the world starts to unravel a little. I get to see the same places over and over
again. But of course, they’ve never the same place more than once. And when I feel a
poem start to pupate, I pick up my pen. Learning about the planet, is learning about
So in A Pocketful of Chalk, there are poems about evening shadows on the Downs, and
how we can be stretched by light. There’s a poem about drought and how the loss of
plants is like losing children. There’s a young child who is impatient with her little
radish patch, but then flings herself onto the soil to listen to the seedlings grow. There
are poems that are fantastical, apocalyptic, about a drowned world, and others that look
at rain as a flow of emotions. Some of the poems are persona poems where I imagine
what it’s like to be a wild creature. I find it fascinating to try and enter a world without human parameters. After all, the best poetry leaves ego behind, and that’s always worth
At times, in the face of the night sky, or mesmerised by a murmuration of starlings,
even the idea of writing can seems absurd. The very first poem in the collection,
ironically, is about just that. When you’ve seen the “the impossible exactness” of a
Marbled White butterfly, words can seem a pointless add-on. As Ted Hughes wrote in
Poetry in the Making: “It is not enough to say the crow flies purposefully, or heavily, or
rowingly, or whatever. There are no words to capture the infinite depth of crowiness in
the crow’s flight.”
So that’s the challenge. To be part of nature, yet at the same time its observer and
protector. Poems live as much between the lines as in them – surely an ideal medium for
expressing such a paradox?
Not crows, but herons… watch Claire Booker reading Grey Heron at the launch of A Pocketful of Chalk:
We couldn’t be more excited to share the news that A Voice Coming From Then by Jeremy Dixon is on the shortlist (of three!) for the 2022 English-language Wales Book of the Year, in the Poetry category.
We are celebrating by holding an online event with the other shortlisted poets, Angela Gardner and Abeer Ameer, on 20th July at 7pm. Get your free ticket here.
A Voice Coming From Then, which we published in August 2021, starts with poet Jeremy Dixon’s teenage suicide attempt and expands to encompass themes of bullying, queerphobia, acceptance and support.
As well as exploring identity, the tragic effects of bullying and the impact of suicide, this collection also includes unexpected typography, collage, humour, magic, discotheques and frequent appearances from the Victorian demon, Spring-heeled Jack.
Jeremy Dixon said: “I am beyond delighted that my collection of poems dealing with bullying, queerphobia and attempted suicide has made the shortlist of Wales Book of the Year 2022. My greatest hope throughout the difficult writing process was that the book would be understood and resonate with an audience beyond myself. For the book to have been selected by the judges is the most unexpected and welcome compliment!”
The Wales Book of the Year Award is an annual prize celebrating outstanding literary talent from Wales across many genres and in both English and Welsh. Today, Friday 1 July, Literature Wales announced which books have reached the English-language Wales Book of the Year Short List 2022.
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.
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.
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.
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: