Discovering ourselves in soil and sky on National Poetry Day

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
its gates.

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
myself.

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
striving for.

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:


#NationalPoetryDay is the annual mass celebration on the first Thursday of October that encourages everyone to make, experience and share poetry with family and friends. www.nationalpoetryday.co.uk

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.

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.

Where We Find Ourselves Blog Tour

We are really excited to announce the blog tour for Where We Find Ourselves edited by Laila Sumpton and Sandra A. Agard.

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:

Day 1) “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.” Arachne Press publishing director, Cherry Potts, explores the Where We Find Ourselves theme of maps and mapping – and how the idea has morphed into an almost-series of linked titles.

Day 2) “This anthology is a great example of literary citizenship… It’s lovely to be part of something that’s actively trying to show the breath of experiences and writing styles across some many communities.” Read an interview with Where We Find Ourselves contributor Anita Goveas on Desi Books.

Day 3) Editor, Laila Sumpton introduces Where We Find Ourselves on the Platforma blog.

Day 4) “I found the stories and poems to be so enlightening and equally heartbreaking at the same time… Its beauty is beyond anything I have read in recent times.” @kristinas_shelves gives Where We Find Ourselves 4.5 stars in her instagram review.

Day 5) “I would definitely recommend this, as I found the texts were powerful, emotional and also provided an opportunity to learn.” @reflections_of_a_reader 

Day 6) “It goes without saying that I’m extremely excited about getting my story published in Where We Find Ourselves! There’s something very special about seeing my story in print, on actual paper, in an actual book, alongside some incredible poetry and short fiction by a very talented group of writers. I’m looking forward to seeing what readers make of the anthology!” Contributing writer Dipika Mummery describes her experience of being included in Where We Find Ourselves. Plus, read an extract from Dipika’s story, ‘A Walk in the Countryside’.

Day 7) Read an exclusive extract from Where We Find Ourselves: ‘Cocoon Lucky’ – a short story by Kavita A. Jindal.

Day 8) “This is a beautifully diverse collection by a host of talented writers” – bookstagrammer @LibraryLooter highlights some of the new authors she discovered in Where We Find Ourselves.

Day 9) Listen to a podcast with Arachne Director Cherry Potts, Where We Find Ourselves writer Marina Sánchez and Jessica Stone from Listening Books – our audiobook partners. 

Day 10) “Where We Find Ourselves is a diverse and innovative collection that showcases the wealth of talent that we have in our desi and wider communities when it comes to telling our own stories.” Desi Reads highly recommends Where We Find Ourselves.

An Author’s Best Friend: Lily Peters’ Top Dogs in Fiction

One thing that really struck us when we first read Accidental Flowers, Lily Peter’s novel-in-short-stories, was the descriptions of the numerous canine characters.

As this week is #LondonDogWeek AND #NationalDogWeek over in the U.S, we asked Lily to rank her favourite dogs from classic and contemporary literature. Disagree? Tweet us @ArachnePress with your favourite fictional hounds.

 

An Author’s Best Friend – Lily’s Greyhounds

 

I wrote, illustrated and bound my first book when I was eight years old. Its main character was not a plucky young girl who dreamt of becoming a bestselling author, but rather a very lazy and quite fat Dalmation named Slobdog. Although for an eight-year-old, my spelling and grammar were excellent, there are, perhaps, superior literary dogs that should be celebrated:

To begin, let us put our paws together for Toto from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. A wise terrier, with a sensible aversion to tornadoes. He is the best friend a lost girl could have and has excellent people instincts (which I find to be true of most dogs), revealing the Wizard for the sham that he is.

Next, we have the entire cast of dogs present in Dog Boy, by Eva Hornung. The novel tells the story of abandoned, four-year-old Ramochka and his hero dog, Mamochka, who adopts him as one of her own. He grows and learns with a pack of feral hounds – becoming one himself. It is a beautiful story that celebrates the canine moral code and it has a growl of an ending that will not disappoint.

Then, of course, there is the heart-wrenching folk tale (folk-tail?) of Hound Gelert. In Welsh folklore, the story goes that Llewelyn the Great wrongly accuses his own faithful pooch of killing his infant son. As he administers a fatal blow to Gelert, he hears his son crying and discovers him safely hidden, beside the corpse of a wolf – whom Gelert had obviously slain. Realising his mistake, Llewelyn is doomed to forever hear Gelert’s indignant, dying yelp.

Serves Llewelyn right.

It is my firm belief that we humans don’t always deserve our dogs. And yet, they keep finding us and loving us with huge generosity. Many of my favourite characters share their fictional spaces with beloved creatures and nowhere is this more true than in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Pullman depicts a world in which every human shares their living days with an animal extension of themselves, their Daemon. When we adopted our greyhounds, Jasper and Joni, I knew I had found my very own pair: long-legged busy-bodies, with a ridiculous love of salty snacks and an inability to cope with change.

In my novel-in-short-stories, Accidental Flowers, dogs abound. Abandoned, beloved or left behind, they pad their way through the stories, sniffing out adventure and love. I can’t pick a favourite. Perhaps Juliet, a ghost of a Jack Russell who haunts the pages of her story with her vital loyalty and companionship? Or maybe Boatswain, a greying lurcher and huge fan of the beach, so long as the sea stays where it should? Can either of them compare to Argos, whose friendship and quiet, fuzzy-eyebrowed understanding helps one protagonist discover their true self as the world lurches to a stop?

How can I choose?

Best to let someone else decide for me, while I take the dogs for a walk.

Accidental Flowers by Lily Peters is available now. Buy a paperback copy from our webshop or why not get the audiobook?

You can find Lily Peters on twitter as @SenoritaPeters.

TURNING TIMES a guest blog from Margaret Crompton

Margaret wrote this for us during the second lockdown. My fault that it hasn’t seen the light until now, but as Margaret cant join us for the Q&A part of hte festival, here are her thoughts on writing for the Solstice.

A young girl is standing on tiptoe, gazing into the little mirror on the wall-mounted bathroom-cabinet. She is glaring, frowning, pushing her chin down into her neck, clenching her lips, flaring her nostrils. Is this how she will look when – if – she is 60?

When she is 20, she is contemplating the pattern of her future life, rather than her face. She expects to complete her degree and post-graduate courses, then to work in her chosen profession. To conform with her peers, she must get engaged, then married, and have her first child by the time she is 25. All these are essential to her status as a woman. She should work for at least two years, then stay at home to care for the children. In due course, she should seek re-employment in her profession, accepting that she has missed the chance of promotion.  By the time she is 60, her main use will be as a grandmother (when, by some miracle, she should have learnt to knit).

Her five years at University will have been financed by grants, which she will not have to repay. Gratitude for her superb education will be expressed through work, as it has been throughout her life. For of course, I’m writing about myself.

My life – and face – have not followed the expected pattern, and I’ve had many challenges and opportunities which I could never have anticipated. Achievements and disappointments, losses and gains. Times have gone by turns, and continue so to do. I am not who I thought I would be, and I’m still learning, changing, exploring. (But I have still not learnt to knit).

The Solstice Shorts poem [Tymes goe by Turnes by Robert Southwell] spoke to my condition. My recent writing has focused on ideas about identity and change. Spidergirl [Published in Arachne eighth anniversary anthology, No Spider Harmed in the Making of this Book] avoids identifying time, place and skin colour. The challenge was to evoke two physical bodies through one first-person narrative voice.

Turner’s World of Twirls [published in Tymes goe by Turnes, the Solstice Shorts 2020 anthology, and read on 21st December at the online festival] was spun out of my self-challenge to explore more aspects of identity-fluidity, including attribution of gender. Playing with the word ‘turner,’ I enjoyed finding a range of possible lives for the narrator who must, at the end of each decade, change both occupation and gender-identity.

Although I have never been anything but solidly heterosexual female, I have ‘failed’ in the role which, when I was young, was identified as essentially ‘female,’ and a necessary attribute of successful womanhood. I have, in other words, not borne children. But I have been employed in situations of equality with men.  Most of the changes in my own life have been from choice, for my qualifications and profession provided a variety of opportunities for rewarding employment. (Social worker, lecturer, playwright, cook…) I’m proud of what I regard as my ‘ramshackle’ career.

When I wrote Turner’s World of Twirls, first lockdown was in full force. It was difficult to find energy to fuel imagination, but imagination created its own energy and I loved twirling in Turner’s world. Writing this now, in the middle of second lockdown, I discern a darker shadow in the story. Daily, I hear of people who have lost their employment and, with that, not only their living but also their sense of identity. For example, a young actress who had just been cast in the part of her dreams, and a retired teacher who had run out of conversation with her husband. After many rejected job applications, the actress is happily working as a classroom assistant, while maintaining her hope that she will, before long, return to the stage. The retired teacher leaves the house for a few hours a day to work, (I think) as a cleaner, which gives her something new to talk about, instead of bickering with her husband. But there are many stories of anxiety, and privation.

Turner’s transformations result from the desire for change. Mine derived from response to necessity and ability to take advantage of opportunity. Even when the change was necessary rather than voluntary, like Turner, I’ve always been fortunate in turning the new situation to good effect. Although Turner makes a demonic deal, there is hope. When I wrote the story, I had no idea how much hope would be needed by this year’s Solstice.

Nothing I write could be straightforward. After many polishing and tweakings, I submitted the story. Cherry, meticulous as ever, queried one of my core statements, which depended on Medieval table legs being turned. Until then, I had assumed that turners, carpenters and joiners were all the same. I plunged into the enthralling world of woodworkers and learnt not only the error of my ignorance, but the pleasure of new knowledge. Although there were Medieval turners, they were unlikely to have been turning table legs. To discover how I pirouetted out of trouble, please read the story.

Margaret Crompton

25th November 2020

If you order a copy of the book BEFORE publication date (this thursday 17th December, you get a free ticket ot the festival.)

Guest Blog: Margaret Crompton – Borning Spidergirl

Today is international Jumping Spider Day! What better way to celebrate than with Margaret Crompton‘s blog about her story for No Spider Harmed in the Making of This Book, Spidergirl.

Sometime in January, Spidergirl was born, after what was, for me, an unusually brief gestation. Arachne’s call for submissions about spiders was a challenge I couldn’t decline. What did I know about arachnids? silk, strength, multiple births, delicate webs, agility. I ignored the fragments of fly-corpses on the laundry windowsill, & the cobweb tangle above. With only a few days before the deadline, and minimal arachnoid background, I avoided natural history, and I had no ideas for a straightforward human narrative. How could I interweave spideriness with humanity?

As I considered the purpose of the anthology, I saw that celebrating Arachne implied facing the horror at the core of the foundation myth: jealousy, rivalry, punishment, death. I challenged myself to explore the Arachne myth in the light of cooperation rather than conflict. Myths are about both everyday experience and mystery.

Mysteriously, I found Spidergirl attending my own school. The gym, in which Spidergirl performs feats of grace and power, was for me a torture chamber. My gymnastic efforts were devoted to avoiding the humiliation of failing to vault over box or horse, climb wall bars or swing on rope; I would generously remain at the back of the queue. My only achievement was walking along the narrow strut of an upturned form, using the balancing exercise to practise what would become essential for a writer – imagination: the floor, ten inches below my hesitating feet, became a fiery pit or turbulent torrent into which I must not fall.

The craft room caused equal anxiety. Most of my relations were – or are – highly talented in many arts and crafts. My own hands missed all those genes. But music has come to me through my father and paternal grandfather.

Love of literature and interest in myth was nourished by the tall glass-fronted bookcase in the dark corridor where from early childhood I was free to sit on prickly coconut matting and read whatever I chose. No surprise that my degree is in English Literature. No surprise either that, after forty years writing ‘professional’ texts about communicating with children in the context of social work, health care, and education, I began to explore other forms. In my 60s, with my husband, I’d also taught (adult education), and researched and written about English Literature. Since I became 70, my publications include short stories, poems, flash fiction and plays; Script in Hand has performed three plays (the fourth prevented, for now, by C-19).

Spidergirl, in a few hundred words, encapsulates the nearly 80 years of reading and writing between that girl with matting-prickled thighs and this woman whose legs are vein-webbed.

This year, Arachne has brought me more than publication in an anthology whose quality delights me. In the spring, I offered a guest blog – not a form which comes easily to me, so another challenge. But being stimulated to write anything at all helped to counteract that extraordinary lethargy which has beset so many people. I spent hours writing as well as I could, following that first blog with another, which Cherry posted, and a third which she didn’t.  Although I was disappointed, good outcomes included the stimulus of thinking about and writing the piece, which led to further reading. And I’ve been enjoying the blogs & interviews, meeting and learning about and from other writers.

Then came the call for Tymes goe by Turnes, another challenge I couldn’t refuse.  I followed leads which led, not to a story, but into fascinating areas of thought, narrative and discussion on our walks around the nearby field. Once again, Arachne called me out of lethargy, and Turner’s World of Twirls whirled me into the world of word play. Once again, I’ve enjoyed the excitement of acceptance, of posting the signed contract, of looking forward to the next publication.

Throughout these months, I’ve come to respect Cherry. I’m grateful for meticulous, patient, and honest editing which assures me that my work has really been read and, in turn, respected. I admire clear editorial principles and quality. I enjoy being a small thread in Arachne’s web.

We are crowdfunding for our next book, and Solstice Shorts Festival. The crowdfund ends on 15th October, head on over and see what we have on offer.

 

 

 

 

 

Author Guest Blog: Emma Lee – Significant Dresses

The title poem from my Arachne Press collection, The Significance of a Dress, is set in a wedding hire shop in a refugee camp in Iraq. People can be left in limbo, unable to return to the country they’ve left, and not yet able to integrate into the country they’ve applied for asylum in. Processing applications is rarely a priority and people can find themselves in camps for years, decades even. The camps’ residents are mostly young men. One reason is that they don’t have caring responsibilities so it’s easier for them to travel alone and they’re often sent on ahead, with other relatives planning to join them once they’ve settled. Another reason is that they are at risk of being conscripted either into the armed forces or into rebel militia. While girls don’t generally have that concern, girls do have to find ways of coping with sexual harassment and finding protection. In the camps, refugees are still expected to pay for food and utilities. Women can find themselves thrust into finding ways of becoming a family’s main breadwinner. No doubt some marriages are love matches, but others are about buying protection or settling dowries. Whatever the motivation behind the marriage, “a bride still wants to feel special, at least for one day.” When “The future is tomorrow. Next year is a question./ A wedding is a party, a sign of hope.”

In most cultures, a bride-to-be is made to feel that a wedding dress is the most significant choice she has. It may be an heirloom dress, worn by a mother or grandmother. It may be a dress of her choosing that incorporates memories of family members who can no longer attend the wedding, whether a sash in a late relative’s favourite colour, a borrowed pair of shoes, or a favourite flower in the bride’s bouquet. Some women have been planning their dress long before there was a groom. Whether the bride is looking for an extravagant ballgown or a slinky sheath for a beach wedding, or a trouser suit, it’s also likely to be the most expensive dress she’ll buy. Most brides will plan to shop with close friends or relatives, with the expectation of being put centre stage with a wide choice to try on. Where do you find a wedding dress if you’re stuck in a camp, possibly with restrictions on where you can travel and shop, and still under cultural pressure to make your day significant?

In one camp a woman, who’d worked in the fashion industry, set up a wedding hire shop to earn for her family. The title poem is based on an interview with her. The dresses were original brought in via her former fashion industry contacts, but she also uses seamstresses based in the camp to repair and alter gowns. A team of beauticians offer hair and make-up styling that won’t melt in the desert heat and will stay in place in the humid evenings so that the bride can have her big day. There is a risk some of the brides are underage, and the staff in the shop never ask the bride-to-be how old she is. A small group of women can’t police a camp, and they understand the desperation of a family.

My poem Casting a Daughter Adrift (from Time and Tide), looks at a wedding from a mother’s viewpoint. This mother has turned to needlework to earn money to feed the family, but it aware she can’t offer much protection against the harassment in the camps, “This man I have agreed to/ in her father’s absence/ I hope will protect her.” The journey from what was hope to the camp has aged her, “The shop’s cracked, foxed mirror/ tells me I’m decades older than my bones.” Neither of them can go back, “The house she was born in is rubble”. Yet she still wants this day to be special for her daughter, “The final payment is the last of my savings/ but I have one less mouth to feed.” Despite her desperation, she is proud of her daughter, “I’m going to let her go,/ my desert flower will bloom.”

Whatever your feelings on marriage, whether you want to get married or not, it’s hard to resist the idea of a wedding as a celebration and a note of hope amongst people whose lives have been devastated by war.

Emma Lee is a regular contributor to our anthologies, and her collection The Significance of a Dress, really fell foul of the Corona virus, with multiple events cancelled, and one of the launches delayed and venue moved. Instead of moping (which must have been tempting) Emma has been very generous with her time, writing this blog and contributing interviews to the website.

You can buy all the books mentioned from our webshop, we will post them out to you.

Preorder No Spider Harmed…  (Another anthology with a poem by Emma in it) out 8th August for our eighth anniversary.

If you would prefer eBooks, all these books are available from your usual retailer, now VAT free! We recommend Hive for ePub.

 

Guest Blog: Stories about stories by Margaret Crompton

Margaret Crompton (No Spider Harmed in the Making of This Book) responds to a comment in Sarah Lawson‘s Lockdown Interview.

Sarah Lawson’s reflection that ‘Somehow poems don’t seem to be coming,’ (Lockdown Interview: No 3, 8th April 2020) has given me much to think about. Like her, I ‘d imagined this time-out-of-time would provide opportunity for writing.  As Script in Hand rehearsals and performance had been cancelled, I would seek consolation in writing a new play (Guest Blog, 15th April 2020).  First, however, I would tidy my study. I attacked a desk drawer and evicted my collection of dried-out felt tips. Since then, the study has become even untidier.

Like Sarah, we already spent most of our time at home, each in her/his own study, with a pattern which we intended to maintain. But time and energy were immediately directed to setting up new systems, daily emails with family and friends, and (reluctantly) registering for our estate Community Group Facebook. I identified preparation, transition and settling, (I’d been a social worker), and entered ‘Fortress Crompton’ – which was, I quickly understood, exactly wrong: we should become open, available – not enclosed.

As members of the ‘high risk’ cohort, I sought ways to be contributors as well as receivers, thinking sadly, ‘We have only words.’ Only words? A few years ago, we’d turned from ‘professional’ writing (Communicating with children; English literature) to exploring short stories, poetry. We had accumulated an archive which, we realised, we could freely share with family, friends, and neighbours. We compiled a catalogue from which pieces can be chosen for me to email. This provides stimulus for conversations which don’t focus on C-19, and one piece often leads to others in intriguing sequences.

With a Polish friend/neighbour, I’m translating a folk story to make a book for his daughter.  And a young friend is writing an email serial story with me; she responded to my opening ‘Once upon a time…’ with a challenge which took me days to follow.

I’d been attempting my first novella. I’m most comfortable with short form, and have recently been revelling in flash fiction compression. The novella minimum 25,000 words was daunting, (although my ‘professional’ texts had achieved double and treble that count). Moving from transition to settling, I became obsessed with completing the novella, then realised that I needed only 10,000 words plus synopsis. I pushed myself half-way through the final chapter, then one evening worked too late completing the submission, pressed SEND, felt relieved. Expected to proceed to some fresh challenge. And became ill for over a week with a sub-migraine. I’d been trying too hard, compelled by some self-induced pressure, to complete a task, to be tidy. Another common symptom, I think.

A week later, I responded to Cherry’s call for guest blog writers. ‘I can do that,’ I thought, wanting, as ever, to be helpful. But as a novice blogger, I abandoned Draft 1 (burgeoning three volume novel) and 2 (laconic summary) for Draft 3. I struggled to complete what I hoped would be ‘just right,’ which I blush to admit, cost two minor revisions and much of Cherry’s kind patience.

So back to Sarah’s interview. I learn from friends and others that many creative impulses are being stifled by lethargy, exhaustion, even paralysis. Is it partly that we’re living so intensely in the present, or the sometimes painfully vivid past, that it’s difficult to enter the worlds of imagination? Is it hard to plan for a universally uncertain future? I feel safe and happy, except for some moments on waking, and others when laying down Priestley or Pym before lying down myself. My anxiety is about having to go out again into that dangerous world. After two heart attacks over twenty years ago, I know about a future abruptly revealed as always uncertain, and am familiar with the inevitability of my own death. This is different. As pollution recedes, emotional miasma pervades the environment. Creative energy is invisibly concentrated on fuelling being fully alive, in this present which is all we ever have.

……………

         I began writing this a few weeks ago. Then came VE Day. We weren’t interested in celebrating here, now. We had, after all, been there, then. But John wrote a poem about his memory of winning third prize in a fancy dress competition in 1945. I remember being taken to the bonfire near my home. I posted John’s poem on the Community Group Facebook, where it attracted numerous Likes and several Loves.  Later, we were unexpectedly serenaded by a mouth organ played enthusiastically by the young son of a neighbour singing ‘Happy VE Day to you…’ and presenting us with A4 posters and flags made by school children, and neat paper-and-string parcels containing scones, cream and jam. (We’ve saved the string). Obediently, at 4 pm we set up a table in our front garden, with embroidered cloth and pretty plates, for afternoon tea.

But this is a story about stories. For by now I was so involved that, not only had I tied my hair up in a 1940s ‘turban’ (red, complementing white and blue skirt and shirt), but obsessively rooted-out old photograph albums from the most daunting corner of my study. There I found pictures of my father – not in India, as I’d so confidently informed the estate, but at home with my mother and me. How could I ever face the neighbours? Shame forced me to open a box of papers I’ve kept since my mother’s death nearly 20 years ago. And there was my father’s 1945 diary. To my relief, he had been in India on VE Day – he noted the gin party – and the photographs were from home leave later. I took diary and pictures across the road to neighbours and (appropriately distanced) told my story. Soon John joined us and shared his own story. Now we know a great deal more of our own and our parents’ stories. And at last I feel free to read the contents of that box.

But, more, through these old stories, we’ve met our neighbours in a new way – and shared not only our stories, but also theirs. This is a new estate, and the first social ‘event’ of the Community. I’ve heard from friends experiencing similar unexpected opportunities for neighbourly story sharing. Not written. Spontaneously narrated and received with interest and respect.

For the first time, on Friday afternoon I looked forward to ‘the future,’ To new stories.

……………….

This morning it’s raining. The estate children won’t be following a ‘creature trail’ or playing on the field. I posted a poem (Alexander Astronaut) with ideas for drawing, writing poems/stories.  Although I’ve earned only four Likes, a neighbour I haven’t yet met would like to share this story outside the Group.

Those poems and stories which ‘Somehow don’t seem to be coming’ will come, when they, and we, are ready. Bringing our words out of the Fortress. Although, I’d be grateful if my idea for Tymes Goe by Turnes would stop flitting around and settle into a coherent form. Meanwhile, I should tidy my study.

With thanks to Arachne.

Margaret Crompton

Preorder No Spider Harmed… – out 8th August for our eighth anniversary!

Guest Blog by Neil Lawrence: Shirley Jackson and I

A guest blog fromTime and Tide contributor, Neil Lawrence.

I’m a ghost story fan. Ever since The Omen soundtrack drifted into my bedroom aged nine, I’ve loved the shivers being scared out of me. By the time I was thirty I’d compiled a ‘must watch’ list. On it was a black and white 1963 British film called The Haunting directed by Robert Wise (yes, the same guy who did The Sound of Music). Despite its age, and despite all the tropes one would expect, ten minutes into the story my breath was short.  As it continued the claustrophobia of the film was unbearable.

The ending puzzled and moved me. The main character kills herself in order to join malevolent ghosts who ‘live’ in the house (if  they are in fact real and not a projection of her own psyche). She chooses death to avoid going back to an empty life with an ambivalent family. One chilling scene showed a twisted relationship with her mother and it stayed with me long after  the 114 minutes had ended.

Ten years on I bought the book, entitled The Haunting of Hill House in a sale. I had no idea who that author, Shirley Jackson, was. It was not typical trashy fare. The prose was beautifully written; in turns affecting, angry, cutting, satirical and deeply, deeply unsettling. Jackson’s observations on frail human behaviour were uncannily accurate. Even more so than the film, the storyline was an outraged polemic of how restricted roles in society affected women’s mental health. I took an enormous amount out of it.

A few years later I was taking baby steps (and clichés) into my own life as a writer. After being accepted into a prestigious local group I was feeling overwhelmed. When I was offered advice on ways, I could improve my work, I was too defensive to listen. They suggested I write short stories. But having never had the experience of an inspiring anthology or collection, I was set against it.

Then a mate of mine gave me his copy of the The Lottery to read. He had come across ‘a very interesting article in the Guardian’ (why do people always say that? Sorry… different blog…) and thought here was a short story I should read. So, I read it. Mostly to stop him mithering me.

It changed my world.

Despite being first published by the New Yorker in 1948, The Lottery is a savage, unsettling tale. Its satire is unflinching. The tone is dry, so subtly mocking that I instantly wanted to emulate it. And again it was Shirley Jackson who had written it.

I sought out the book that The Lottery came from. Turned out it was unimaginatively entitled The Lottery and Other Stories. It was page after page of powerful and macabre messages, but also savagely funny.  In particular one story called ‘The Tooth’ encapsulated everything I wanted to write.

In it, the protagonist is packed off by her husband to see the dentist. To help cope with the pain, she resorts to pain killers mixed with booze. As a result, her awareness is skewed. The journey she takes is drenched with fear and bizzare visions. Time and place dislocate. After she senses a malevolent presence whilst in the dentist chair, she begins to dissociate.

Jackson drags the reader from the surface of the storyline into the turbulent and distressing  depths of the protagonist’s life.

The story hit me at a visceral level. After finishing it, I immediately began to write short stories. And have never stopped since.

Two other Shirley Jackson novels in particular have deepened my understanding of how to write.  One, her final published book, We Have Always Lived in The Castle, is a story about the moral landscape of small-town America. A family become the target of hatred in their local community when poisoning leaves only three of the household alive. The tone of the novel is light, comic even. It could easily have become like The Addams Family. But in Jackson’s hands the bleak humour is a deconstruction of ‘family values’ and an attack on the judgemental nature of humanity. Her command of tone and language are absolute.

The other, an earlier novel, Hangsaman, is about a young woman who experiences a traumatic event in the woods and then struggles with  starting her new life at college. Self-absorbed parents are neglectful to the point of being abusive. Jackson uses blurred images and incomplete narrative to describe the shattering of this poor woman’s personality and the results are harrowing but utterly believable.

Shirley Jackson died too soon at 46. In Ruth Franklin’s biography ‘A Rather Haunted Life’ she describes a writer struggling with feelings of outsidership and having to make a series of cruel compromises. She portrays Jackson as driven despite crippling self-doubt and a number of challenges presented by those around her. Many of the incidents in her life resonate deeply with my own.

Shirley Jackson’s writing has become a constant source of motivation for my own work and ambition. I keep her short stories and novels at my deskside, refer to them constantly. She is my touchstone, my inspiration, a writer whose themes are both modern and pertinent. She’s not a pleasant read, but I love her all the more for that.