Arachneversary video 6: Jane Aldous and Let Out the Djinn

Poet Jane Aldous and editor Cherry Potts discuss Jane’s poetry collection, Let Out the Djinn, editing, poetry and cats…

you can buy Let out the Djinn (on sale throughout August) from our Webshop.

Just put in ARACHNEVERSARY at checkout to get your discount.

 

Lockdown Interviews: no29 Karen Boissonneault-Gauthier interviewed by David Mathews

Twenty-ninth  in a series of author-to-author interviews to distract them, and you, from lockdown torpor.

David Mathews interviews Karen Boissonneault-Gauthier (Noon, No Spider Harmed in the Making of this Book) about her writing, photography and book design work, which includes the cover for No Spider Harmed…

Preorder No Spider Harmed… – out 8th August for our eighth anniversary, when we will be launching online at 8pm BST, with readings from authors, including David.

See more of Karen’s photography and designs  on her website  and follow @KBG_Tweets

Lockdown Interviews: No 28 Joanne L.M. Williams interviewed by Laura Besley

Twenty-eighth in a series of author-to-author interviews to distract them, and you, from lockdown torpor.

Joanne L M Williams

Joanne LM Williams

Joanne L.M. Williams (No Spider Harmed in the Making of this Book, We/She) interviewed by Laura Besley (Story Cities).

Laura:   You write a mixture of short stories, flash fiction and poetry. Do you set out to write in a particular form, or do you let the piece develop organically?  

Joanne:    When I start writing I might not always know exactly how the idea or plot is going to play out, or what the ‘ending’ is going to be, but I do know what form it’s going take, because the processes by which I write a poem, or a short story, or a flash fiction are very different. So, yes, for each piece I suppose I do set out to write in a particular form. Or rather the initial idea I have is for a piece of writing in a specific form.

I can only think of one exception to this: Before I had really heard of flash fiction I had an idea for a short story that I could never quite get to work out. It turned out that idea was supposed to be a flash fiction – and once I was introduced to drabbles, that story idea became a 100 word piece called One Hundred Years.

Laura:   Your poem ‘Gifted’ has been selected for the upcoming Arachne Press anthology, No Spider Harmed in the Making of this Book, and focuses on the mythological Arachne. Did you draw from your background in History for inspiration?

Joanne:    Not especially – I have a history degree, but it didn’t cover the classical world. My degree is in what Oxford, slightly archaically calls ‘Modern History’, by which they mean everything from around 500 AD onwards. Ancient History is a separate department.
However I’ve been fascinated by all kinds of mythology, and especially Greek mythology, since I was quite a young child. I’ve played around with a lot of the myths in my writing before, but I’ve never written about Arachne, and this seemed a good opportunity. I really enjoyed getting under the skin of a version of the character that I imagined.

Laura:   In We/She (short stories by women from Liars’ League, Arachne Press, 2018) your story Cages is written from the point of view of a dragon. Do you enjoy the challenge of writing from unusual perspectives?

Joanne:    Very much so – although it’s perhaps less of a challenge and more of a desire to give those characters a voice. As a young reader I was usually much more interested in the secondary characters, the sidekicks and the ‘baddies’ in a story, than I was in heroes and heroines, so as a writer I often like to explore where those characters are coming from, and what their own stories are.
It’s also a device which allows me to explore the experience of being othered in various ways: Most of my central characters are marginalised, and many of them are queer.

Laura:   As well as Cages you have had several other stories performed at Liars’ League in London and Hong Kong. Do you enjoy listening to your stories being read aloud by others?

Joanne:    Usually, yes! It’s certainly an interesting experience. I tend to think of any piece of writing as a living thing, or a conversation, that’s interpreted by its readers, listeners or performers anyway, but that’s made particularly obvious when someone else is reading it to an audience in front of you. Sometimes an actor will bring out elements in something that I hadn’t even fully realized were there – often humorous moments, or poignant ones.
When I first heard Cages read out, by the wonderful Susan Moisan, she drew laughs and responses from the audience in a few places I wasn’t necessarily expecting, which was very gratifying! It was such a pleasing delivery that I have to admit, when I later read out that story myself, I borrowed heavily from her performance in places.
Still, there can be some anxiety in handing over something you care about so much. A bit of me doesn’t like giving up creative control, but that’s something it’s good for me to learn to do. I’ve only ever had one bad experience, with one group, where I wasn’t really happy with the end result – but that was a situation where I wasn’t able to speak directly either to the actor performing my piece, or to the person advising/directing. Liars League are great because they generally give an opportunity for the writer and actor to discuss the reading in advance.

Laura:   One area in which you enjoy performing is competitive dance. Do you find that movement unlocks creativity?

Joanne:    Dance definitely helps me to unlock my feelings – it’s common for me to go into a dance practice and find myself working through a mood I hadn’t even realised I was in. It’s incredibly helpful in that respect.
I do also find dancing in a style that has a formal structure and technique can drive creativity in the same way that writing in a fixed form can. I love ballroom dancing for the same reason I love metric poetry: Something about the juxtaposition between the intense emotions being expressed and having a tight form to work within has creative power. I have a very long-standing project I’m playing with at the moment, writing poems based on dances where the metre of the poem matches the rhythm of the dance, as I want to explore that similarity.

Laura:   Like many writers, you also have a day job, in your case working in theatres in an organisational role. Do you find that a job which requires a completely different skill set allows more, or less, space for creativity in your free time? 

Joanne:    I’ve always written, and as a child had ambitions of being solely a writer, but I realised whilst I was still in my early twenties that it wasn’t something I could do full-time. I’m an extrovert and like being around and working with people too much – if I spend much time alone it affects both my mood and my productivity very negatively.
Theatre working hours can be long and anti-social, which can make fitting in time for writing, as well as dancing and studying, tricky. But at the same time, it’s absolutely necessary for me to work around people in a job I love for me to then have the emotional energy and ability to write. And even though I don’t write specifically for the stage, getting to see so much creative content as part of my job is beneficial too. Just as reading as much as possible is useful to a writer, so is watching a lot of theatre.

Laura:   When you read something that you think is perfection, how does it make you feel? Does it spur you on, or intimidate you?

Joanne:    Oh it inspires me, hugely. That’s why I want to write ultimately – the sheer excitement when you read something wonderful. I want to be able to create that sort of magic with words too.

Laura:   As writers, we have to deal a lot with rejection. Do you have a ‘tried and tested’ method, or does it depend on the mood you’re in or the piece that you submitted?

Joanne:    I don’t really have a method per se. The majority of the time rejections don’t bother me too much – I know what the statistics are like for almost all writers in terms of rejections per accepted piece.
Of course, there’ll sometimes be a ‘no’ that stings more than I was expecting it to – perhaps if I’ve grown especially fond of a piece of work, or conversely, if it was especially difficult to complete but I thought I’d cracked it.
At the end of the day though, I can always move on fairly quickly. In a way I know I’m lucky, because writing is my ‘side-hustle’ so to speak, and my income doesn’t depend on it.

Laura:   Do you have particular writing goals for the next year, or years? Do you, for example, want to write a novel or a play? Do you see writing as part of your career, or more of a hobby?

Joanne:    I’m aiming to finish the collection of poems based on dances mentioned above, and I’m also looking to write some stories in styles that are new to me. I have the beginnings of some ghost stories brewing for example, and I’d like to write more comedy.
I’ve no immediate plans to write a novel again. I attempted one years ago, completed it, got feedback and put it through several edits. I then never submitted it anywhere because by the time it was finished I no longer believed in it, either artistically or emotionally. I find I enjoy the process of writing short stories and poems much more. As for a play, the problem I have is that the thing I find hardest of all to write is realistic-sounding present-day dialogue! Of course, not all theatre takes the same form, so never say never, but it’s not among my short-term plans.
To answer the last part of the question, even though writing isn’t my primary job, and it doesn’t make me money, I do see it as part of my career, yes. I’ve always been interested in doing lots of different things or jobs; some of them pay me and some of them don’t, but they’re all important and part of my ‘portfolio career’.

Laura:   How have you been managing in lockdown? Have you been able to use this time to write more, or are you – like many others – struggling to put pen to paper? If you are managing to write, what are you working on?

Joanne:    It’s been similar to before in terms of productivity if I’m honest. There’s lots of extra time, but my ability to write fluctuates – some days I’m inspired and write in a burst, and other days are just not writing days. I’m afraid my writing habits have never been especially consistent, and that hasn’t changed. One thing I am finding useful though, is an online writing group that a friend is running for a few hours each evening – I don’t join every night, but when I do it’s a good motivator.
I’m working on two pieces – one short story and one poem – for two upcoming deadlines at the moment. They’re both inspired by, or are responses to, famous pieces of literature (respectively the novel Little Women, and a Robert Southwell poem for Arachne’s Solstice Shorts call out).
However, that’s about all my two projects have in common – they’re very different in tone as well as form. I’m also busy redrafting some existing stories, including a couple of modern fairytales, and a dramatic monologue from the point of view first Mrs Rochester.

Lockdown Intervews: no27 Laura Besley interviewed by Joanne L. M. Williams

Twenty-seventh in a series of author-to-author interviews to distract them, and you, from lockdown torpor.

SC_Typography_COVER_v9.indd

Laura Besley (Story Cities) interviewed by Joanne L. M. Williams (No Spider Harmed in the Making of this Book, We/She)

Joanne L M Williams

Joanne LM Williams

Joanne:        You have several flash fictions published, including your collection The Almost Mothers, and a piece in Arachne’s Story Cities. What is it about shorter fiction that you especially enjoy? Do you also write using other forms, or is flash fiction always your preference?

Laura:    When I first started writing I had no intention of becoming a short fiction writer. I’ve always read a lot, but novels, and had initially seen that as my only path. However, when I first started writing, I had lots of ideas, but struggled to get past a few cohesive sentences, or paragraphs.
I stumbled across Calum Kerr online and his challenge to write a piece of flash fiction every day for a year. I decided to do the same and started in May 2012. Some of the pieces were fine, some were terrible, some were never finished, but I learned a lot about myself as a writer in that time, the most important being that I had fallen in love with short fiction and the precision needed to tell a story.
I don’t feel ready to take the leap into longer fiction yet, but I’m fairly sure I will one day.

Joanne:        When did you start writing fiction? Have you done so since you were young?

Laura:    I remember writing a story about a fairground when I was about nine or ten, but that’s the extent of my childhood writing experience. I started writing again when I was in my late twenties, while I was living in Germany. Initially I was writing non-fiction, about my travels and experiences there. Once I’d moved to Hong Kong, I started writing fiction.

Joanne:        Do you have a daily or weekly schedule or pattern for writing? How does this fit in with the rest of your life?

Laura:    I have two young children (six and two) and have to fit my writing in around them. Before lockdown, I used to write while my eldest was at school and my youngest was napping. Now, I’m lucky that my husband is working from home and I write every morning from 7:30-9:00 before he needs the office, and I need to take over the childcare.  I’m a morning person, so this works well for me. Once the children are in bed, I’m usually too tired to write new things, but do other writing-related things for an hour or so like editing or submitting.

Joanne:        Where do you write? Do you have a particular place you always sit to work for example, or any associated rituals, or can you write anywhere?

Laura:    I can write anywhere, in a supermarket queue or while my son is having a swimming lesson, but my preference is in cafés. I like the cacophony; the snippets of overheard conversations, people watching, the small interactions you have with strangers, the coffee. Obviously at the moment that’s not possible, so I’m either in our office or at the kitchen table.

Joanne:        How has your experience of living in different countries and cultures influenced your writing?

Laura:    Directly, not a lot. I’ve only written a few stories set in other countries (I’ve lived in the Netherlands, Germany and Hong Kong), but everything you see and experience gets filed away. I hope one day to write about these places that have played a big part in my life.

Joanne:        What are your literary influences and who are some of your favourite writers?

Laura:    Always a tough question because there are too many to mention. My current favourite authors are Elizabeth Strout, most famous for her novel-in-stories: Olive Kitteridge; Kate Atkinson, I think her companion novels Life After Life and A God in Ruins are perfection; and Maggie O’Farrell whose books I love, but it was also after reading an article by her wherein she stated that if you wanted to write, you should “take yourself seriously”. I think that advice completely changed my attitude towards writing.

Joanne:        Do you ever write specifically in response to prompts, or call-outs for work on a particular theme, and do you find this useful? Or does your inspiration mainly come from other sources?

Laura:    I often write to prompts or call-outs for particular themes, but not exclusively. If I have an idea about something, I’ll jot it down and maybe it won’t be used for months, or years, but I never throw anything away.

Joanne:        Flash fiction is less well known, and perhaps less easy to find, than other fiction forms. Are there any online sources of shorter fiction, or printed collections, that you would recommend?

Laura:    There are so many online journals for flash fiction, too many to mention here, but I’ll list a few of my favourites: Adhoc Fiction, Ellipsis Zine, Fictive Dream, Fifty Word Stories, Lunate, Reflex Fiction, Smokelong Quarterly, Spelk.
Something relatively new, but gaining popularity fast, is the novella-in-flash: a novella, but each chapter is a piece of standalone flash fiction. I’ve read a few recently and really enjoyed them: An Inheritance by Diane Simmons (Adhoc), Dinosaur by Adam Lock (Ellipsis), Three Sisters of Stone by Stephanie Hutton (Ellipsis), The Neverlands by Damhnait Monaghan (VPress), Tethered by Ross Jeffery.

Joanne:        What is your own favourite piece (or pieces) that you’ve written and why?

Laura:           I’ve chosen three pieces that are very special to me.

  • ‘Near and Far’ (Spelk, 2018) holds a few threads of my mother’s childhood, she was born and spent the first few years of her childhood in Indonesia;
  • ‘That Apple’ (Fictive Dream, 2018) was my first ever journal publication. It’s written in 2nd person point of view and I know popular opinion generally doesn’t favour this, but personally I love it and use it whenever I can.
  • ‘The Motherhood Contract’ (Ellipsis, 2018) is about a mother who is struggling and there is a lot of my early motherhood emotions in this piece.

Joanne:        Finally, what are you working on at the moment?

Laura:    As well as individual pieces, I’m also working on a novella-in-flash. It’s been several years in the making, but am hoping that this is the year I finish it. I’ve also found myself writing about the current situation a lot, either my own experiences or fictional ones. If there are enough good pieces, hopefully I’ll be able to bundle them together.

Lockdown Interviews: no26 Laura Potts, interviewed by Anne Macaulay

Twenty-sixth in a series of author-to-author interviews to distract them, and you, from lockdown torpor. Laura Potts (Time and Tide) interviewed by fellow poet, Anne Macaulay (The Other Side of Sleep, Vindication)

 

Laura potts

Anne family tales

Anne: Hello Laura, it’s been really enjoyable reading some of your beautiful poetry. I would like to ask you a few questions about you and your writing. The first thing that struck me when I read a little about you is how young you are, and how prolific and successful already. I must confess to a feeling of envy, as I didn’t really start writing until my late fifties and even then, it took me a while to think of myself as a poet. Can you remember when you first wrote a poem and when you first thought of yourself as a poet?

Laura:  Hello Anne!  Thank you for your kind comments.
The exact age when I started writing is unremembered, but I must have been very young. I’ve always written in one way or another. Prose could hold my attention for an afternoon, but poetry always stayed with me. I think it was the music. It was lovely on the tongue. Can I remember the first time I wrote a poem? No, I don’t think so. But I can remember writing limericks for my dad in the evenings. I must have been six or seven then. I would slip them under the door of his shed as he worked. It was my way of welcoming him home.
I’ve tended not to think myself as a poet in recent years. I write poetry, yes; but it isn’t my profession. There’s a slight distinction to my mind. My work is still wild and juvenile, and I have a lot to learn. The title is something I’m still reaching for.

Anne:  Are you from a background of literature lovers? Who or what sparked your interest in poetry and writing? Who were your early influences – family, friends, teachers?

Laura:  I was lucky enough to be born into an older household where my grandparents had a constant presence. I was their only grandchild, and it was as if they grew young again when I came along. For two octogenarians, they played and danced and threw snowballs in winter, and paper planes in summer, and made dens and spinning worlds out of living room furniture. They gave me endless time. My grandmother taught me to read. She collected dusty books and poetry. I spent many evenings by the fire, lost in the folds of her dressing gown, listening to her read in her great gravelly voice. That was where it came from. Nothing taught or learnt. Just two bright imaginations.

Anne:  Your writing is beautiful with a lyrical, musical quality. And some of your poems have the atmosphere of folk ballads. Is music a big part of your life? Do you play, listen, at all?

Laura:  Yes. It’s strange, but I’ve always heard music in terms of colour and light. A piano is usually blue; a drum is gold; pipes are silver. I don’t have the words for explaining why. It’s an emotional impulse rather than a rational thought.
I play the ukulele and the piano – both equally badly. My mother is an excellent pianist and my father a fine bagpiper, but I’ve never quite had their talent. I love to listen to the piano in the evenings though. Especially through bathwater. Have you tried that? Our piano sits in the room below the bathroom and its aqueous music is beautiful. It’s like warm running water.

Anne:  There is a real feel of flow, fluency in your work, Laura, which made me wonder about your writing method and approach. Where do you get your ideas? Do they just come as moments of inspiration?

Laura:  Difficult question! I suppose my poems aren’t born as ideas as such. They’re the responses of emotions I’m living at the time of writing. I’ll be aware, for example, that I want to write about love, or grief, or anger, and my thinking will revolve around adequately translating those emotions to the page. But I’ll never set out to write a sonnet or a haiku or a narrative poem, and it’s rare that I’ll set out to write to a particular theme. Ian Duhig once gave me some valuable advice which has stayed with me. He said that writing is a process of carrying emotion, and that you’ll never know where the poem will go until you get there. The thinking and feeling processes are just as important as the writing process. There’s some freedom in realising that, and in letting time take its course. The poems are better for thinking on.

Anne:  And do you do much editing – do you worry over a piece?

Laura:  Yes, of course. There are times when I love and loathe my work. It’s a constant fight against language. I tend to edit as I write, which makes the process long and laborious, but I’ve learnt to expect the best results that way. A poem can keep me awake at night – for both the right and the wrong reasons. It often brings pleasure and pain. But I’ve come to see that each mistake paves the way towards progress. It’s taken a long time for me to accept that. There’s a reason I keep writing. The love outweighs anything else.

Anne:  I asked at the beginning about your earliest influences and am wondering now about later influences through academic study and independent reading. I also read that you have been involved in a number of writing groups and projects.
Are there any poets or other writers who you feel inspired you to become a writer? Did any of them influence your writing style?

Laura:  Yes, many. I’ve always believed that the best writers are the best readers. It’s important to step outside the vacuum of your own thoughts and into the work of others. I’ll often find the tracings of other writers in my poems, especially those I was reading at the time of writing. I see Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath, E. E. Cummings and Liz Berry. In certain lights, I see memorable parts of prose and music. Most of them are only subconscious ghosts, fragments of one moment when their words chimed with mine.

Anne:  While beautiful, there is an atmosphere of melancholy and sometimes bleakness in many of your poems that I have read. Are you drawn to these subjects from an aesthetic and sensitive care for human’s viewpoint? How much of you as a person, your story, your personality slips into your words or are you able to keep at a remove?

Laura:  I think it’s fairly impossible for writers to place themselves at a remove from their work. Their language, their semantics, their structure – they all betray parts of the person who chose them. If I were trying to be objective, I would say that my poems are always concerned with the landscape of my home. Whether Yorkshire exists in them or not, I see it. And I think they’re fascinated with sadness. It’s something I’m still trying to understand. There’s a longing or a loss in there somewhere. I think there’s one in me too.

Anne:  Some of your poems have a timeless feel to them such as First Light which is in the Time and Tide anthology by Arachne Press – see your opening lines,
  It is somewhere in a sometime
That a long late night

And others feel more contemporary such as Morning on the Water where I love the visceral quality of the line,
    Poured a hot greasy laugh
Are you seeing your writing develop or change as you go along, or do you have a range of styles you work in?

Laura:  Yes, it develops from one poem to the next. The progress of my voice has been gradual, like a slow opening of thought. I’ve never set out to have a style as such, but I suppose I’m a very imagistic writer. I don’t like wasting words. With each poem, I try to hone that craft a little more.
I’m sure many readers will be familiar with the process of applying for grants or awards, and the ridiculously long application forms which go with them. Recently, I started thinking about why I dislike them so much. It isn’t the foundation or the reasoning behind them, and it isn’t the time I have to spend on them. It’s the fact that I love to work with a blank white page and play with a limited space. And I wish I didn’t have to spend five thousand words explaining that.
But since that realisation, I’ve been paying a lot more attention to the blank space of the page – to its absences and silences – in my recent work. I’ve come to see that what isn’t said is just as important as what is. That’s the development which has just begun.

Anne:  And do you have a poem that is a favourite or has a special story that you would like to pick out?

Laura:  Yes. Virginity will always be a special one. It was written after a long period of absence when I had managed to write very little. For a time I thought I would never write again. I took myself away, alone, to a secluded cottage in the Lake District. With time and solitude, I managed to write. More than that – I was pleased with the poem. It was a small triumph at the time. It still is. The experience was necessary. It taught me that the words will come back, even after a long absence. I’ve been writing ever since.

Anne:  I have really enjoyed reading some of your work in preparation for this interview and look forward to reading more in the future. Good luck, Laura.

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Lockdown Interviews no25: Joan Taylor-Rowan interviewed by Alex Penland

Author Joan Taylor-Rowan (Five by Five, Stations, London Lies)

interviewed by Alex Penland (Story Cities)

 

 

Alex:    How did publishing The Birdskin Shoes change your writing process? How did it alter your view of publishing?

Joan:    Firstly a bit of background. The novel was a finalist in a SpreadtheWord novel pitch competition. Buoyed by the response, I completed it and sent it to an agent. The first email from an agent was the kind you dream about – I have it pinned above my computer – but she said it needed work. I duly rewrote it, but despite the changes she decided not to take me on. I had an editor look at it, to give me insights into necessary changes before trying again. The editor loved it and suggested another agent who did take me on. At the time I wasn’t sure that she was the right agent for me, but bruised by my first encounter, it didn’t really occur to me to turn her down. She sent the book out to seven publishers but while they all liked it, no-one said yes.

I decided back in 2012, that if I really believed in the novel I should self-publish. Again I am not a techie so this was a huge learning curve and I was very proud of it. But what I hadn’t really thought out was the amount of work required in promoting it, and you really do have to be doing this full-time. There were a number of things I learned about the publishing process from this:

  • choose the agent who is right for your work, don’t just accept the person who takes it
  • just because that agent does not get a publisher don’t assume it’s not publishable. I found out later that agents do not approach everyone, only those publishers with whom they have built up a relationship
  •  once it was self-published, even with good reviews, no agent would then take it on, however that has changed now, but you have to show that it is successful
  • you can write a book that people love but you still might not get a publisher for all sorts of reasons, only one of which is the quality of the writing
  • at least by self-publishing the book it is not in a drawer under my bed, gathering dust
  • getting an agent seems like a miracle but even that is just the very beginning of a long and perilous journey

It did make me much more aware of the commercial side of writing – not that I think anyone should write with that in mind, but if publishing your work is your aim, you have to know and be aware of where your book fits in and what else is out there. It’s harder if you write literary fiction than genre fiction. I learned just how hard it is to write a novel, what a long process it is. It did make me much less judgmental about other writers. Just to complete a novel is a huge achievement. I prefer the intensity of the short story in terms of writing, but I read more novels than short story collections, because I enjoy the immersive quality of a novel.

 

Alex:   The stories in Five by Five are quite different from each other, one set in the 1970’s and one in the Mexican revolution. How did you come to write Bittersweet Like Pomegranates, and The Bet?

Joan:   I’ve always been fascinated by Manet’s painting  of The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian, which is in The National Gallery. It’s very large to start with, and the firing squad are life size. In the painting they are standing very close to the emperor and have already fired the shots so you are there  before he dies but after the bullets have left the guns. It made me wonder what it would feel like to have to stand and kill someone who was unarmed. The men are soldiers and are used to combat but this would be very different. I’ve spent a lot of time in Mexico and so I decided to read up about this emperor and what had lead to the execution. To a large extent he was a pawn and in fact was not bad as emperors go. He encouraged land reform for example.
I began to think about the moral dilemma a soldier might face, especially if he had a child. How might such an event affect him? How would he look his child in the eye? So that is how the story, Bitter Sweet Like Pomegranates evolved.
The Bet, a story set against the background of the conflict in Northern Ireland in the 1970’s,  is a little more grounded in my own experience. My mother was a Catholic from Northern Ireland, and my Irish cousin did send my tomboy sister a rubber bullet.  I can still remember the shock of seeing this enormous hard object when I was expecting something the size of a conventional bullet. It transformed my understanding of the news. When rubber bullets were fired, or people were hit with rubber bullets, I knew what that meant.  It represented a coming of age – a step into adulthood where suddenly something that seemed the world of a child – a squidgy bullet, is suddenly  revealed for what it truly is, a potentially lethal weapon. Luckily my grandpa was not killed with one, that’s where the fiction comes in. However we did all watch the Eurovision song contest, and I wanted to use that as a way of bringing in my mother’s mixed allegiance – she was both British and Irish and that caused her difficulties at times.

 

Alex:    Do you have a literary philosophy–something that you try to include in all your work?

Joan:    Hmm..that’s an interesting question. I really believe in the redemptive, life-saving qualities of art and literature, and a love of words and the imaginative life often feature in my stories, even though I don’t plan it that way.  I also like to learn something I didn’t know through reading, whether it’s about a different community or some area of knowledge and if I can I’ll try and get an interesting fact in.

 

Alex:    What are your different approaches to poetry and prose? Does one come more easily than the other?

Joan:    I rarely write poetry, although I used to in my twenties. In many ways I wish I did. I like performing my work, and having an audience. That’s much more likely with poetry. There are fewer opportunities for short story writers to have their work heard. However I have written lyrics for a musical based on one of my short stories (with a post-graduate composer who heard one of my stories at an event and approached me to collaborate.) I’ve also written lyrics for a pantomime for a friend who teachers A level drama. I enjoy writing lyrics as they are part of a narrative.

 

Alex:    Do you have any strange or funny writing stories? 

Joan:    After I self-published my novel, I had postcards printed which I left in various shops, galleries etc in London. As it was set in Mexico, I left some in a Mexican gift shop in the Columbia Road flower market in London. A year or so later I signed up for a digital textile class at The City Lit in London. I woman arrived late and breathless and the only seat left was next to me. We both opened our computers to display the images we had brought in to inspire our textiles – hers were of Mexican streets. I commented on them, as mine too were of Mexico. I was there a few years ago, I said, in fact I loved it so much I wrote a novel set there – The Birdskin Shoes. Her jaw dropped. I’ve read that she said. I picked up the card in a gift shop in Columbia Road flower market. I loved it! It was a real Twilight Zone moment.

 

 

Alex:    What do you have coming down the pipeline? What’s next?

Joan:    I’m completing an M.A. in Creative Writing at Chichester University at the moment, and I am working on a novel for that. I’ve also been sending a lot of stories out to competitions although they are a long shot but it makes me revisit and hone my work. I set up a creative writing course in Hastings – and I’ve really enjoyed teaching that and I’m hoping to do more once lockdown is over. I’m also working on a couple of children’s picture books with my sister who is a greeting card designer. Those will be in rhyme, so maybe I have not quite left the poetry behind after all.

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

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

watch Joan read The Bet at Hither Green Festival last year – we would have been there this week, were it not for the cursed covid.

Lockdown Interviews: no 24 Nina Murray interviewed by Cathy Bryant

Twenty-fourth in a series of author-to-author interviews to distract them, and you, from lockdown torpor.

Nina Murray

Nina Murray (An Outbreak of Peace) interviewed by Cathy Bryant (The Other Side of Sleep, Erratics)

 SONY DSC

Cathy: You’ve recently been discussing on your blog how to organise work. This must be doubly difficult for you, as you have both art and writing to sort out! What are your strategies?

Nina:  Indeed! I have learned from experience that despite my best intentions, I can only do two things at once: writing and art, for example. Or writing and a day job. Translating and a day job. Day job and art. Not all three at the same time. At the moment, I’m in the “day job and writing” configuration. But whatever is going on, I am always keeping an eye on whatever I am not actively doing: either discovering new artists/authors whose work I admire, or learning additional tricks of the trade. I try to follow two principles. The first one, applicable to every area of life, I think, is to ask, What can only be done by me? The answers are pretty obvious: exercise, reading, writing, certain decisions, etc. My longer-term approach is create – curate – promote. At any given time, I try to be generating new work, revising or publishing or rearranging existing work, and promoting work, my own and that of others. Operative word here is “try.”

Cathy: Much of your work centres on animals. How would you describe your bond with them?

Nina:  The other day my mother was tidying her place and found what she proudly refers to as my first preserved work. I painted that picture when I was five. It is a picture of a farmyard, with a dog, a cat, some wildlife, a number of chickens, and a pair of ducks. All animals are clearly identifiable. There’s a tree for shade, a bone for the dog, and a pond for the ducks. The piece is signed. Not much has changed since then, other than about a decade ago someone pointed me to Pat Shipman’s paper “The Animal Connection” which argues, convincingly, that “Establishing an intimate connection to other animals is unique and universal to our species,” and, in fact, has been a driving force in the human evolution. It’s a great piece. Working with animals requires self-awareness, discipline, and a fundamental ability to get out of your way as an observer. I’ve been known to say that you could make sound hiring decisions based on how someone walks a dog. Or grooms a horse.

Cathy: What are you working on at the moment?

Nina:  Oh, man. Luring the next idea into my brain? My blog, mostly. I’m also putting myself through an online course from the International Writing Program, How Poets Write Poetry. It has generated some drafts…

Cathy: What is your writing/working day like?

Nina:  My job requires that I be responsive to folks in other time-zones, so when I start at 7 am (yay for telecommuting), it’s a sprint for a couple of hours to sort through whatever is waiting in my inbox. I curate my office’s Twitter feed, which means I spend a couple 15-minute intervals on that during the day. I walk the dog; I work out; I read. On Saturdays, I don’t talk to people other than my husband—I need the quiet. Usually that’s when I can write poetry, although I have been working on making it easier to enter that creative space in shorter amounts of time—if I wait for the luxury of a couple of uninterrupted hours, I will almost certainly spend half of that time on a nap. When I have a translation project, I work on that every day. I am fortunate to be married to a fiction writer who makes dinner almost every night.

Cathy: What resources have been helpful to you as a writer?

Nina:  Public libraries (almost) everywhere I have lived. Used bookstores. Thrift shops. I have a magpie kind of mind that relaxes while picking over an abundance of seemingly unrelated stuff.

Cathy: You’ve written some fascinating-sounding books! How would you sum up each one? Or if that’s not helpful, what might the reader take from each one?

Nina:  That’s a great question! There’s a chronology to them.

Fifty-Six North collects poems I wrote during my two sojourns in Lithuania – hence the title, which is the country’s latitude.
Minimize Considered was my first published collection, and it came together from poems I wrote on weekends while serving as a vice-consul in Toronto. I think of that time as the period when I finally committed to a writing habit and embrace Mary Heaton Worse’s maxim that “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” That carried me through two years in Moscow, which produced Alcestis in the Underworld, a book about being a post-Soviet observer of a place whose version of “post-“ differs radically from one’s own. Minor Heresies is my ode to women.  

Cathy: (I’m going to borrow some of your interview questions now, as they’re excellent.)
What type of information do you seek and consume daily? How useful is this information to you? How does it affect your work?

Nina:  Ah, yes! For practical purposes, I ensure that I am informed of submission calls, reading periods and the like. I read global news—after it’s been subjected to analysis I trust. I’ll listen to the National Public Radio once or twice a week. Right now, I seem to be gravitating to well-written, thoughtful non-fiction about discrete areas of human activity and history. I just finished Michael Pollan’s “The Botany of Desire,” and it was excellent. Anything that brings new vocabulary with it—so it’s probably time to revisit Seamus Heaney, from whom I never fail to learn words like “scud.”

Cathy: When people seek you out, why do they turn to you in particular? What do they want from you? Are you comfortable with that, or would you rather it were something else?

Nina:  My job determines a lot of my interactions with others, and in that context, it’s usually advice, endorsement, or financial support. Connections. Helping get a project off the ground… On a very basic level, I’d say it’s help in making a decision, however small. I am at a place—I just realized—where I do get invited to translate pieces, rather than being the one who pitches. And for a laugh. I’d like to think I’m reliably funny.

Cathy: What throws you off? This could be a small thing or a big thing. What do you do to regain your composure?

Nina:  A small thing that can really derail me is a sudden change in pre-arranged plans: as in, I have something on my agenda for the day, and the boss comes in and tells me to go do something else. Because usually if that happens, that means somewhere we crossed wires, and I didn’t plan properly, so I’m going to be feeling guilty for the next few hours if not days. That’s not good.
Any unexpected personal confrontation is painful. Heck, even an expected confrontation can derail me—the unexpected ones (there was that legendary time at the DMV in Toronto) just undo me.
I hope and tell myself I have gotten better at not losing my composure in the first place, but if that horse is out of the barn, there’s usually a good, long cry, then a dinner and a heart-to-heart with my husband.

Cathy: How can one make money from writing? How important is this to you?

Nina:  I’m still working on that. I ask every writer willing to answer, you know… I can imagine a situation in which a carefully managed flow of soundly negotiated translation projects could generate a living, especially somewhere with a good internet connection and low cost of living. But I haven’t done that myself, so I cannot in good faith endorse it.
The second part of this question is key, isn’t it? I think influence is more important than income. Recognition. Resonance. The most gratifying response I’ve ever received was from someone who sent me back a picture to illustrate what my poem made him think of (West Point in winter). That was awesome!

Cathy: What are you most proud of that you’ve created (art or writing – children don’t count!)?

Nina:  I don’t have children—by choice, and am slowly, tentatively reaching an age where I don’t wake up every morning asking myself what I’m going to do to make up for that.  I am proud of my marriage (however much credit I can take for that). I know I have been a force for good in a few people’s lives (my interns, my students, a few friends, I hope). At the moment, I’m proud of the fact that our rescue dog—who started out as an animal with utterly no tools to operate in the universe—has developed a few good habits and proper manners through consistent training, and that the two of us have been able to deliver said training. There was also that moment, during the time I was taking dressage lessons every week, when a young horse executed a flying lead change for the first time in his life under me—that was something else!

Cathy: What you like to learn or achieve, both in your work and outside it, if money, time, health etc were no object?

Nina:  I’d like to find out if I could actually write full-time, or if that idea in itself is a red-herring because no one truly does. I’d like to hike Switzerland. Or Austria. Either one. I’d like to apprentice to a jewelry maker. Restore an historic building—re-paint, re-build, re-place stuff.

Cathy: Do you ever struggle with motivation or writer’s block? How do you deal with this?

Nina:  Motivation – definitely. Sometimes I can happy-talk myself into working: say things like, heck, let’s just do this for a bit, not too long, it’ll be fun, you can stop as soon as it’s not fun. My biggest challenge is coming up with ideas, and I’m starting to think I’ve been going about it wrong, as in, I don’t need to have an idea to start. It’s like you said, just give it a go.

Cathy: Bonus: What question would you like to be asked? What is the answer?

Nina:  Uh! Uh! I actually started thinking about this the second I asked you. Here goes: Would you like to go on a weekend trip I’ve arranged, to a beautiful spot in the hills where we can go hiking for as long as you feel like it? And the answer, of course, is yes!

 

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

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

Lockdown interviews: no23 Cathy Bryant interviewed by Nina Murray

Twenty-third in a series of author-to-author interviews to distract them, and you, from lockdown torpor.

Cathy Bryant (The Other Side of Sleep,, Erratics) interviewed by Nina Murray (An Outbreak of Peace)

 

Nina: What motivates you? How do you ensure you get the motivation you need?

Cathy: I’ve written since I was a child, and I read and wrote throughout a very unhappy childhood. Books were my escape then, and they’re my pleasure now. Both reading and writing, I still feel that urgency, that excitement that I felt when I was little—particularly that charge one gets when reading a book that one knows is going to be special. Sometimes I lose myself in writing a piece that works, and feel that same urgency. Not always! But I don’t need extra motivation—writing is what I do and who I am, and always has been. Though money is useful too! I know I’m supposed to be above such things as a writer, but I still have bills to pay.

Nina: What throws you off? What do you do to regain your composure?

Cathy: Physical pain, due to arthritis and fibromyalgia and a bunch of other stuff. It’s why I can’t keep a regular routine of the type that is supposed to be so helpful. What I do is let myself off the hook—it’s not my fault, after all. I can also use the time for daydreaming (i.e. constructive idea generation!) or other mind exercises.

Nina: Tell me about a collaboration that was unexpectedly successful. Or, conversely, recall a collaboration that should have worked well but did not.

Cathy: They say don’t work with animals, children—or your spouse. Keir worked with me and several others on the three Best of Manchester Poets anthologies, and it was a wonderful experience. We all discussed and debated things and did a fair bit of complaining, but, on the whole, it was a warm and empowering project. One launch night we had 42 poets performing, and we finished on time and with everyone happy!
Another experience that stands out was working with a dancer for an ‘Inspired by Tagore’ performance run by Sampad. My poem had won a competition with them, and as I read it to the audience, a dancer called Shuma Pal danced. It was very special. She wasn’t happy with her performance, but I thought she was wonderful!

Nina: What skills would you like to learn/acquire? If you could learn anything, and time/money were no object, what would it be and why?

Cathy: I’ll be honest here—fighting pain is my main goal, so that I can continue reading and writing as much as possible. Taking care of my health is a boring but necessary job.  If I could learn anything: flying aircraft, dermatology (since I had to work on someone’s cyst I’ve been peculiarly enthralled—yes I know it’s weird!), goldsmithing, botany (so I wouldn’t have to say things like, “That puffy bird that looks like a sponge was on top of the bush with red bits this morning,”), and I’d write a disabled Kama Sutra (one can get great wedges and supports and things these days).

Nina: What type of information do you seek and consume daily? How useful is this information to you? How does it affect your work?

Cathy: I do read a bit of the news—as much as my mental health can stand. Sometimes I write topical poems, political satire and so forth (a recent example is a poem called, Donald Trump Cures Everything). Since we moved into our own home last year, I’ve had a garden for the first time since leaving my parents. I’ve been learning the names of the plants and how to care for them. I’ve always loved birds, and some of my significant childhood experiences centered on them, so now I’m trying to get to know those in my garden. Recently I’ve been writing about a female blackbird in our front garden who seems to be in love with her own reflection, and tries to mate with herself. So nature is featuring more in my recent work. There’s also the journey of marriage, which is a strange and wonderful garden in itself, and which I am stumbling through!

Nina: If you are a goal-setting kind of writer, what are your goals for the rest of this year? What, in your opinion, would be one practical thing that a creative person should accomplish in, say, six months?

Cathy: I think it depends on the writer. These set goals can be impossible for those with chronic health conditions or disabilities. I would say, just keep trying, keep writing when you can, and don’t beat yourself up when you can’t. Research apps or other software to help with health problems—for instance, speech-activated dictation software is much improved.

Nina: What practices do you have in place to ensure that you solicit frank feedback that is helpful to you?

Cathy: Submitting my finished and proofed piece to a litmag that pays. I used to go to writing groups a lot, but having recently moved I’m still looking for the right one here. As far as feedback from editors goes—if they accept it, they like it, which is useful and remunerative feedback. If they reject it, sometimes they add a note saying, “We loved this except for…” which is incredibly useful. Appreciative and constructive editors are pure gold.

Nina: What public/media engagements have you found to be most effective in promoting your work? What kind of opportunity do you wish to see more of? (pardon the clunky grammar).

Cathy: I like clunky grammar—it’s human and fun! I am limited with performances by my mobility problems and mental health issues. This makes me appreciate my publisher, Cherry Potts at Arachne, even more—I can’t be the dynamic person zooming around festivals and doing performances every week. I use social media—I love Facebook, and as I love to entertain people, I do share links to my work there with any funny poems or posts. I am conscious that I don’t do enough.

Nina: In your typical workweek, what tasks do you tend to complete first? What resources do you regularly draw upon?

Cathy: The morning is for admin, as it’s my best time physically. This is the time for proofing and submitting work, for editing and emailing. I subscribe to Duotrope—it pays for itself every year, for me—and have a lifetime subscription to Firstwriter. I use these and many more websites to collate my Comps and Calls, a monthly list of opportunities for writers. I only list free writing competitions (yes, they are worth doing—I won $1000 for a previously published poem, among many other wins) and submission calls without entry fees (which fees I consider an abomination). Afternoons are for rest. Evenings are for dreaming and writing.
I also take a lot of meds. If I gave a speech, it would begin, “I’d like to thank tramadol, naproxen, bendroflumethiazide…”

Nina: Who are the people/groups to whom you turn? What resources do you still need?

Cathy: I do Napowrimo every year now, as I always seem to get about ten decent pieces out of it. The pieces that aren’t great have still exercised my writing muscles, got my brain working.
The people I turn to are my friends—I have many wonderful friends who are writers too. The writing community is one of my favourite places—so warm, so understanding, so helpful to those who want to enter it, or are having problems within it. I owe a great debt to other writers.
Keir and I are both writers, so we bounce ideas off each other all the time.

Nina: When people seek you out, why do they turn to you in particular? What do they want from you? Are you comfortable with that, or would you rather it were something else?

Cathy: When people turn to me, it’s usually because of my writing success—27 literary awards and writing competition wins, plus several books published, plus hundreds of pieces in litmags. They ask all sorts of things, from how to write a great book, how to find an agent, how to get their stories and poems published, what terms mean (such as ‘MS’ or ‘spec fic’) or if there are any litmags available for people of their nationality, or age, or belief system. I do my best to answer helpfully, remembering the free help I got when I needed it and was broke. But it’s impossible to give everyone the in-depth help they need or want. I just bumble along, doing my best when I can.
Once Robert Graves received a letter from a businessman. He wrote that he’d had a good year, and as he enjoyed Graves’ work he was sending him £400. Now that’s the sort of message I’d like to receive! I do get fan mail sometimes, and it fills me with joy. I still have a need for validation, and when someone messages me to say that they enjoyed something I wrote or performed, I’m walking on air for days. People do donate to keep Comps and Calls going, and I love them for their thoughtfulness.

Nina: How’s your social media presence? Is there anyone whose social media presence you feel is useful and meaningful?

Cathy: I spend too much time on Facebook, though I’ve also had great opportunities from there. As so often, my inspiration there comes from other writers, and editors and publishers—I’ll name a few names here: Dominic Berry, Karen Little, Ayesha Kajee, Cherry at Arachne, Teika Bellamy at Mother’s Milk, Rosie Garland, Angela Smith, Sheenagh Pugh and Steve O’Connor. Fiona Pitt-Kethley is astonishing in all sorts of ways. Apologies to those I haven’t mentioned, a good gross or so of whom (clunky grammar alert) are extremely important to me—the above list is a cross-section.

Nina:  How can one make money from writing?

Cathy: There are loads of ways, though my health makes many of them impossible. Dominic Berry goes into schools, for instance, and entertains the children and gets them interested in poetry and writing poetry—he’s the most lovely writer, performer and person. Then there are poets such as Akiel Chinelo who go into prisons and help the inmates via poetry. These are ways of earning money while helping people and writing, all at the same time. Some folk of an academic bent have become creative writing lecturers, a proper job based on writing. Other writers—and I can think of two fabulous ones, who might not want to be named—take the corporate wage and become either content writers or in-house writers. This is less creative but more remunerative, and it depends on each writer’s circumstances what is appropriate.
I struggle to do these things as I often have to cancel events due to my health flaring up. I do run the occasional workshop (£80 per two-hour session if you’d like to hire me, folks), usually specialising in getting published and/or entering writing competitions, as these are my specialist areas. Mainly for me, though, I make money from winning writing competitions, and submitting my stories and poetry to litmags. This is not a way to get rich! I’m very prolific, so I write and submit loads—over 400 submissions one year.

Bonus: What question would you like to be asked?

Ooh! Ooh! Exciting! Umm….what would I like for my birthday? I don’t know, so not that…
What do you need to do, Cathy?
I need to stop self-rejecting my manuscript of woman-centered science fiction and fantasy stories. I keep thinking, I’d like to write an intro or afterword to each piece, and an introduction. I keep thinking that it might not be good enough for Arachne (I know that lockdown is a rotten time to publish, so I’m not sending them off anyway at the moment). In other words, I’m doing all the things that stopped me from submitting my work for decades. [Note from Arachne. We have told Cathy she is a noodle and to send at once.]
I need to remember that almost all writers feel like that.
I need to remember my own writing mantra: give it a go. Keep trying. have a go!

 

You can buy all the Arachne books mentioned from our webshop, we will post them out to you.
If you would prefer eBooks, all these books are available from your usual retailer, now VAT free! We recommend Hive for ePub.

lockdown interviews: no22 J A Hopper interviewed by Sarah Lawson

middle-aged woman in sunglasses

J. A. Hopper (We/She, No Spider Harmed in the Making of This Book) interviewed by

Sarah Lawson (Vindication, The Other Side of Sleep, Departures.)

Sarah Lawson

Sarah:           Did you always want to write, or did the urge come to you later in life? Was there an early influence? Was there a moment when you said to yourself (if not to many others) “I am a writer!”? (Or has this moment yet to arrive?)

Jane:             I always loved to read, and fooled about with poetry a bit when I was a teenager, like lots of people do, as well as keeping an on-off diary over the years. I read everything when I was younger: romance, thriller, literary, nonfiction, but started getting into short stories on my maternity leave, because when you have a newborn in the house you’re never more than half an hour away from being interrupted. And then when my daughter started sleeping through and I had a bit of time in the evenings, I thought I’d have a go at writing something. That was in 2015, so with some stories now published in actual printed books I can start to call myself a writer, but sadly it’s not a full time job.

 

Sarah:           Apart from spiders, what subjects attract you?

Jane:             Most of my stories are about or inspired by parenthood or kids. Write what you know! And also there isn’t a huge amount of short fiction out there about the lonely, funny, weird experience of first-time parenting, or not much that I’ve found, so I thought that could be my “thing”. My spider story for No Spider Harmed was inspired by the Anansi stories I read as a child, which my daughter also loves.

 

Sarah:           Some writers need special circumstances to inspire them to write – solitude or public places, home or abroad, an attic workroom, a cabin in the garden, the kitchen table, a corner of a library, a pen and paper or the latest Apple. Do you have any ideal requirements for writing?

Jane:             I use a laptop because I type faster than I hand-write, but that’s necessity really. The main thing is that my daughter must be out of the house or sound asleep. That’s all I need, but boy do I need it! Nothing creative can get done, by me at least, with an energetic, demanding kid in the house. Special circumstances, the right sharpness of HB pencil and any other requirements are wild luxuries. Joyce Carol Oates said that the great enemy of writing is interruption, and she’s completely nailed it. Uninterrupted time is all I need: everything else is superstition and window-dressing.

 

Sarah:           Have you found memories a useful source of material? Childhood memories, perhaps, or some experience in the more recent past?

Jane:             I think a few childhood memories creep in to my writing sometimes, like remembering the Barbies I played with as a little girl for We/She, but usually I write about contemporary, current, personal stuff: the things that are right in front of me.

 

Sarah:           Do you like to read your work to an audience, or even “perform” it? (Actually, I am not sure what “performance poetry” is, except that one must read it in a dramatic way. I don’t think I am a performance poet, although I quite like to read to an audience.)

Jane:             No! The idea brings me out in a cold sweat. I love listening to stories and audiobooks, but I’m not a good reader-aloud myself at all, which is why I sent some of my first stories to Liars’ League. They get actors to do it, which is much better for everyone.

 

Sarah:           How do you picture your readers? What response would you hope them to have when they read your work?

Jane:             I hope anyone can enjoy my stories, but especially that they appeal to stay-at-home and working mums like myself who are doing their best and sometimes feeling the stress. I love funny stories and think there should be more of them in the world, which is why I try to write them: I want readers to laugh and to relate. I might also find a select audience in women who’ve developed a mild crush on Daddy Pig through watching too much Peppa Pig. His voice is definitely too sexy for children’s TV.

 

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

Preorder No Spider Harmed… – 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.

Lockdown Interviews: no21 Ness Owen interviewed by Joy Howard

Ness Owen (Mamiaith, Shortest Day, Longest Night, Dusk, An Outbreak of Peace, Noon, Time and Tide) interviewed by fellow poet Joy Howard, (Foraging, Dusk,Time and Tide)

Joy Howard

Joy:     As someone who has never been rooted in any particular location, I am especially interested in how the opposite of that – in your case Wales and Ynys Môn – makes your poetry particular and different. What would you like to say about that?

Ness:   I never really thought consciously about how much I write about place until more of my work was published and people started commenting. I’ve always felt deeply rooted to Ynys Môn and to Cymru- to the landscape, history, language and stories. I grew up living with one set of grandparents in the North but also frequently visiting my other grandparents in Swansea in the South. They were all great storytellers and they (together with my primary school and Sunday school teachers) instilled me with a great sense of my roots and of stories bursting to be told.
School holidays were often spent making the long, (up to 7-hour journey because of travel sickness) across the length of the country. I was fascinated by the changing landscapes and the place names, often knowing their order off by heart. On these journeys, I learnt so much of a history that wasn’t taught in schools from the meaning of names, folklore to story behind graffiti on walls.
As you can imagine, living on a small wind-blown island, the sea can’t help but show up in my writing too. I’ve never lived more than a couple of minutes from the shore. I was brought up in a village with the Irish Sea in front of me and the Inland Sea behind me and I now live on my husband’s family farm where the spring tides come into the fields not far from the house.
Also, growing up in a bilingual community has had a great influence on my writing and I’ve always been fascinated by words and languages in general. In school, I also studied German, French and Latin. One of my neighbours was German so we often played German games in her garden and at Christmas we sang ‘Silent Night’ in Welsh, English and German. I love the different sounds of languages and the weaving between more than one language.

Joy:     I am a lifelong fan of R S Thomas – has he been an influence in your writing? Anyone else in particular?

Ness:   I’m a great fan too and his poetry collections are always at hand to return to. Although I was aware of him for his activism when I was growing up, I was very much a later comer to his poetry. It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I realised that he was brought up a few miles from me and I’d attended the same secondary school as him. Even though I studied literature up to a degree, we didn’t study any Welsh writers writing in English, so I do feel cheated that he wasn’t celebrated at that time. Thankfully that has changed.
I read a lot of poetry, so I probably have been influenced by many and I enjoy a great variety of styles. Names that spring to mind today would be Mary Oliver, Menna Elfyn, Seamus Heaney, Tony Harrison but that list leaves many others out!

Joy:     Do you feel that gender/sexuality/age also have a bearing on what you write?

Ness:   I sure they must. I was very aware when I began studying literature that we weren’t studying many women writers or poets. In the first few years of secondary school, we were given a poetry anthology to read called ‘Reach Out’ (which I confess, I still have). It has 100 poems in it, and at the time I counted that there were only 3 poems by women. This stayed with me, so I suppose I always felt a sense of how easy it is not to be heard.

Joy:     And following on from that, do you also write ‘outside your skin’ so to speak?

Ness:   I hope that some of my work gives voices to others too. I attended a workshop many years ago where we asked to rewrite a piece that we had written from other person’s point of view, either from another gender, age group, opposing side etc. I use this exercise on my work sometimes to try and see if another angle adds a new dimension and, in an effort to make sure I’m not being too blinkered.

Joy:     I see that you have also written a number of plays – which is your preferred medium?

Ness:   I enjoy writing both and often a play will start as or turn into poem or a vice versa. As I get older, I seem to be writing more poetry, but I do have ideas on the back burner that will hopefully turn into plays.
I like the anonymity of writing plays in the sense that you can hand it over and can sit with the audience (even if you heart is racing). On the other hand, poetry is something that I can work on while I’m doing other things whereas plays tie me to the desk.

Joy:     How was it working with a translator?

Ness:   I was lucky to have met Sian Northey in a playwriting workshop the year before my collection was published and she encouraged me to write more in Welsh. Afterwards, I also attended a workshop of Sian’s and learnt so much about sitting with the meaning of the poem before starting to translate.
When Cherry asked if I would translate a few of the poems into Welsh I asked Sian if she would proof-read and make any suggestions and thankfully, she agreed. From my side it was a free and easy conversation and we emailed back and forth. She was very gracious at pointing out any grammatical errors or ‘camdrieglo’ (incorrect mutations) and it was a joy to see the finished poems.

Joy:     I’m devastated that all Grey Hen Press readings have been cancelled for the foreseeable. Do you enjoy performing your work?

Ness:   It must be such a difficult time as readings are such a lifeline and disappointing that events are being understandably cancelled.
Although I still get nervous, I do enjoy performing. I think it’s a catalyst to improve your craft and to find out when things don’t work. I also love meeting and listening to other writers. I enjoy going to open mics and I’m a member of a few local groups that organise events. I’ve got so much out of these chances to perform.

Joy:     What projects are you currently working on?

Ness:   As part of the multi creative exhibition ‘Unus Multorom’ in Plas Bodfa on Ynys Môn, I’ve been working on a set of micro poems in Welsh and English about 3 female saints Gwenfaen, Ffraid and Dwynwen who were all ‘brought by the sea’. It’s been fascinating to research them and, to realise how much their stories hold true to what we need more of today: kindness, a soothing of the mind and unconditional love. I’ve been working in collaboration with the artist Rita Ann Jones who has produced an amazing sculpture out of recycled plastic which is based on the chains and ropes holding ships in the quay. The poems will be displayed within the sculpture together with salvaged pieces found on the beaches where the saints were said to had arrived at. Due to the lockdown, the exhibition has had to change medium to digital and it will eventually all be found at https://www.plasbodfa.com/unus-multorum-2020 .
I hope to put together a pamphlet of micro poems, a form I’ve been enjoying working with after the call outs from the Black Bough community on Twitter.
I’m also very excited to be reading for a journal later this year.

Joy:     Please add anything you want to say that I have left out – and I must order a copy of Mamiaith from Cherry forthwith!

Ness:   Thank you for selecting such thought provoking questions.

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