We’ve counted the votes, disqualified the people voting for their own work (tsk, tsk, did you think we wouldn’t check??) and can now announce that (subject to contract) the folowing poems and stories that will join this year’s winners, in the Solstice Shorts 2022 ‘best of’ ebook Hiatus, are:
After Before by Mandy Macdonald After Sun, Before the Stars by Jane Aldous Against Daylight Saving by Gabriel Noel (This year’s competition winner) At the Hotel de la Lune by Sarah James Beach Clean by Ness Owen Fire at Midday by Susan Cartwright-Smith Fisherman’s Daughter by Claire Booker In Between Dog by Pippa Gladhill Jackdaw by Elaine Hughes Mock Posh & Tatters by Moira Quinn Pause by Karen Pierce (This year’s competition winner) Rewilding by Jackie Taylor Sir Thomas Wyatt’s Catby Elinor Brooks Stone Baby by Sarah Evans The Surgeon’s Mate by Maria Kyle Volunteer by Jane McLaughlin Wednesday Afternoon by David Mathews What He Doesn’t Know by Frances Gapper Yes, Twilight by Math Jones
Where there was a dead heat (which happened several times) I’ve included both. We’ll announce the winner of the prize draw shortly – going to experiment with the cat doing the draw…
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 went the for the whole gamut of launches for A Pocketful of Chalk, outdoors, in a barn, in a museum and on line! Here’s the online version, a triumph of technology that took a lot of setting up – those downs are beautiful, but they interfere with Claire’s internet signal. A lot of testing and rearranging of kit was involved, and turning off of interfering phones etc, but it worked!
As we head towards a bank holiday weekend and you are perhaps thinking of a walk, here, somewhat delayed, are the poems from A Pocketful of Chalk that Claire Booker read en plein-air in Seven Sisters Country Park, above Cuckmere Haven, in perfect walking weather back at the end of July.
Towards Beachy Head
Hey Diddle Diddle
Long Man Dreaming
On Beacon Hill
buy a copy of A Pocketful of Chalk from us Print eBook
with three events: Keats House on 28th July 7pm, Free Tickets Seven Sisters Country Park between Eastbourne and Brighton on the 30th July (including an optional short walk) 14:30 Free Tickets
and online on 4th August, 7pm free tickets
Laura: Hello Claire! It’s lovely to virtually meet you. Let’s start with an easy one. Why do you write?
Claire: Ah, that’s a good one, Laura. I rarely stop and ask myself why? Too busy trying to actually do it. I think it’s because writing offers me quiet, introspection, where I can explore the things that feel deepest, and yet are hardest to reach. It can be frustrating, coming close (but not quite close enough) to something meaningful. But when words do come together in unexpected and revealing ways, then there’s real satisfaction. I also enjoy being part of the wider family of writers. It feels like a journey we share together, as readers and writers of each other’s work.
Laura: As a poet, who haunts you? Are there any writers you return to time after time?
Claire: I was madly in love with Wilfred Owen when I was at school. I even carried a little framed photo of him around with me! I love Edward Thomas too – even more so now I’m older. His niece was my father’s first girlfriend, and his great niece was my Aunt’s god-daughter, so there’s that additional connection. Other poets who inspire me include Dylan Thomas, W B Yeats and Seamus Heaney. I may have a bit of a Celtic thing going on here. But Gerald Manley Hopkins is also awe-inspiring, and Plath is vital reading too. I enjoy contemporary poets too, including Alison Brackenbury, Pascal Petit and Mona Arshi.
Laura: Tell us your favourite line of poetry.
Claire: Help, that’s quite a Sophie’s choice you’re offering me there. Perhaps Dylan Thomas
And alone in the night’s curving act/ They yearn with tongues of curlews for the unconceived/And immemorial sons of the cudgelling, hacked/Hill.
Moon and the Pleiades go down. / Midnight and tryst pass by. I, though, lie/ Alone.
Am I allowed a third one? Plath
Love set you going like a fat, gold watch.
Positively the last! Sam Beckett
Birth. It was the death of him.
Laura: As a Brighton-based writer, do you feel that place and time are important to your work? Can you separate your personal writing from your personal geography?
Claire: I moved to a village just outside Brighton three years ago, after decades in south London. The sea and Downs are definitely beginning to loom large in my work. My poems are often about people, relationships, conflicts, memories and dreams. But I’m finding nature increasingly represented, either symbolically, or as the primary character of the poem. Fisherman’s Daughter (In Time and Tide) came about through a visit to the excellent Fishing Museum on Brighton beach. We can forget how livelihood was once a very physical and dangerous reality, involving whole families. I’m a dreadful sailor (three sea legs required for any kind of sea journey) but I love living vicariously through the vocabulary and mythology of the sea.
Laura: Here’s a fun one. If you were throwing a fantasy dinner party for poets and playwrights, who would you invite?
Claire: Great idea. I wonder how they’d all get along? I’d have to invite Shakespeare, so I could pump him about the Dark Lady (might s/he come too?). Emily Dickenson, but would she turn up? Probably not. Maria Tsvetaeva (I’d have to brush up my Russian), Lorca and Neruda (help, no Spanish), Oscar Wilde (for his wit), Maya Angelou, Sharon Olds and Jackie Kay to keep the men in check. Plus of course everyone from my Stanza Group.
Laura: You had the chance to travel to Bangladesh last year as a guest poet for the Dhaka Book Fair. What was that like?
Claire: Totally amazing. It all came about through Loose Muse Writer’s Night, which has met in London for 15 years and is run by the wonderful Agnes Meadows. A key Bangladeshi poet Aminur Rahman came to perform (unusually, because Loose Muse is a platform for female writers) and we exchanged books. A year later he invited me as one of seven guest poets from around the world. We performed at three universities, the Dhaka Book Festival, on countless TV programmes, Poetry clubs and even in a prison. It was my first time in Asia and the warmth of the welcome and the sheer enthusiasm everyone showed for poetry was inspiring, and very humbling.
Laura: Do you have any advice for young readers who feel called to write?
Claire: I’d say play with ideas and words, experiment, and don’t feel you have to write in a certain way. Perhaps consider one of the many creative degree courses, but equally, remember to respect and enjoy your own voice (and the finding of it). There isn’t a right way to write poetry. Meet up with other writers, support each other and give and receive feedback. You have something unique to share.
Laura: Finally, tell us a little bit about your future projects. Where can we find you?
Claire: I’m working on a full collection based on my experiences of living here on the South Downs. My first pamphlet Later There Will be Postcards is out with Green Bottle Press, and my second pamphlet The Bone That Sang is forthcoming from Indigo Dreams later this year. I blog at www.bookerplays.co.uk where you can read excerpts of my stage plays and a selection of poetry.
You can buy all Arachne books, including Time and Tide from our webshop, we will post them out to you.
If you would prefer eBooks, all these books are available from your usual retailer. we recommend Hive for ePub.
Claire: I was very taken by your poem ‘The Sinking of Mrs Margaret Brown’ in Arachne Press’s ‘Time & Tide’ anthology. Can you tell me what inspired you to write about the Titanic? Is history something that particularly interests you? And how did you decide on the tone of the poem?
Michelle: I spent most of my childhood in Denver (Colorado), where Margaret Brown had been a 19th century socialite, philanthropist and early feminist – although she was most famous for surviving the Titanic disaster. ’The Unsinkable Molly Brown’ character appeared in one particular advert and somehow embodied the image of the tough pioneer woman. (By the way, the Denver I knew – and even Margaret Brown knew – was a proper city. Not exactly the untamed frontier!) From a young age, I was interested in her character and how her ‘unsinkability’ had eclipsed the rest of her life – right down to her name. Although history in general is always a draw for me, it was was the creation of the mythical ‘Unsinkable Molly Brown’ that wouldn’t let me go. By the time I put myself in the mindset of ‘Margaret Brown,’ the tone of the poem seemed to follow naturally: the voice and thoughts of a woman who is aware of the trappings of wealth – yet refuses to simply be taken to safety and leave the less fortunate to their fates.
Claire: As a veteran of three Solstice Shorts festivals, have you been able to attend any of the performances of your work, and what, if anything, do simultaneous performances bring to an audience or writer?
Michelle: I’ve attended each of the past three festivals and have both read my own work and seen it performed by actors. I find it fascinating to be part of an audience (live or video) when different actors interpret my poems: it’s a glimpse into how someone who doesn’t know you ‘hears’ your lines and ‘sees’ your images. I suppose it’s akin to hearing a piece of music played by several bands or orchestras – each version has its own flavour and becomes its own unique experience.
Claire: What function do you consider poetry to have in society today, and how do you see it developing (or not) in the future?
Michelle: For me, poetry seems more than ever to ask Why. It doesn’t necessarily offer answers but provides different lenses for examining the question. Whether it’s printed on the page or performed in front of an audience, poetry makes us think about language, meaning, irony, ambiguity. It opens our minds to others’ experiences, emotions and ideas – how they might consider the Why.
I think more hybrid/collaborative/cross-genre projects will keep poetry developing in new ways. I’m looking forward to seeing how poets continue to use emerging technologies to add new dimensions to poetry.
Claire: E-book or hard copy – which do you prefer, and why?
Michelle: Definitely hard copy. I love reading paper books, love the physical act of turning pages, folding them, holding a book in my hands. I also love seeing my books on shelves. I can’t imagine the emptiness I’d feel if my entire library were on a single device. Convenient, yes, but not the same, at all.
Claire: In this current lock-down, what have you been reading?
Michelle: The Divine Comedy. I’ve dipped in and out over the years but haven’t journeyed all the way from Hell to Heaven. I’m currently still in Purgatory but hope to enter Paradiso soon.
Claire: What qualities do you look for in a poem?
Michelle: I’m attracted to poems that show a real love of language, that try to push it further without getting too flowery or overwrought. I like experimentation and risk-taking, both with words and with the appearance of a poem on the page. I appreciate a bit of mystery at the heart of a poem, as well as ambiguity. For me, a successful poem is one that draws me in (especially on a visceral level) on the first reading but only reveals its secrets slowly. I like a poem that sticks with me and keeps me coming back for more.
Claire: How have you developed as a creative writer since you first started? Did you find your voice early, or are you still exploring?
Michelle: While I’ve been writing for many years, I wasn’t one of those people who found a single voice early on. I’m not sure I have a single voice now. I tend to experiment with lots of voices and an ‘I’ that may or may not be related to me in an autobiographical sense. I’m also interested in stretching those different voices in terms of tone, register, language, syntax… you name it. I hope I never stop creating new voices and developing.
Claire: Any collections or pamphlets out, or forthcoming?
Michelle: My debut pamphlet – Self-portrait as a diviner, failing – was published in 2018 by Paper Swans Press. I have a few projects in the works, so I hope to add to the ‘forthcoming’ soon.
Claire: Paper? Rock? Scissors?
Michelle: Paper. I’m a writer, after all!
You can buy all the Arachne books mentioned from our webshop, we will post them out to you.