A flash of inspiration in the winter dark… the 5th Solstice Shorts Festival, Noon, took place at noon, on 21st December 2018 in 5 towns across England Wales and Scotland. Cherry Potts (and briefly, Jane Aldous) talk about the idea, the organisation and the stories poems and songs that sparked up the day.
And throughout August, to celebrate our Eighth anniversary, if you add the code ARACHNEVERSARY at the checkout you’ll get a discount – or you can bulk buy the series with a bigger saving – check the special offers tag.
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.
Michelle: You wear a lot of hats: teacher, reviewer, flash fiction writer, poet, film-poet creator… (feel free to add more). How do these various roles feed your creative work?
Emma: The best way to learn something is to teach someone else: it makes you realise where the gaps in your knowledge are and having to think about explaining a technique or aspect of craft in a way that makes sense to someone else gives you a deeper understanding. I always recommend that people read as widely as possible. Prose writers can learn about brevity and musicality from poets and poets can learn narrative techniques from prose. Reviewing also exposes you to books you wouldn’t have necessarily chosen to read. It’s easy to say ‘I only write x so I’ll only read x,’ but you’re closing yourself off to diverse experiences and new ideas that can stretch your own creativity.
Around ten years ago there was a trend for book trailers, a short film advertising a book. Most poetry publishing is done on a shoestring with little budget for marketing so I thought I’d give making a trailer or some film-poems a go. I’m not really a visual person – I once wrote a poem because I couldn’t be bothered to rummage through a rucksack to find a camera to take a photo – so the film-poems have been very low-tech and few and far between. I started blogging in 2007 and my blog has been regularly updated ever since. I like being busy.
My day job, the one that pays the bills, is copy writing. It’s a mix of disciplines, the brevity of poetry, the creativity of fiction and factual needs of non-fiction. The form I come back to is always poetry, but occasionally I’ll have an idea or a set of characters that won’t be strait-jacketed into a poem so I’m forced to write a story. I think poetry’s advantage is its musicality, that idea that a poem can communicate even if it’s not fully understood, and you can still pick up an image or a mood if you don’t fully follow what’s being said.
Michelle: What role does politics play in your writing?
Emma: That’s an interesting question, because I don’t see myself as a political poet. However, I do explore the effects of imbalances of power and wealth. Many of my poems bear witness to domestic and sexual violence and the situations of refugees who’ve not only fled traumatic experiences but are experiencing ongoing trauma while stuck waiting for their asylum applications to be processed.
Michelle: What’s the most surprising thing you learned or discovered while writing The Significance of a Dress?
Emma: That occasionally I can do humour; or at least a dry, wry look at a situation. The poems in ‘The Significance of a Dress’ aren’t all about the refugee situation. I had a moment of panic when Cherry Potts asked if I had some ‘happy’ poems. I didn’t think I wrote any (my excuse is that if I write miserable poems I can be happy but if I write happy poems, I might end up miserable). But I found How Rapunzel Ends about a jilted boyfriend who thought he could win his girlfriend back by setting up a piano in a busy city centre (he was a professional musician) and serenading passers-by and When Your Name’s not Smith about a bank teller who confidently tells a customer he knows how to spell her name until she comes to sign the form he’s completed, and it turns out he can’t.
Michelle: What’s your most interesting quirk as a writer?
Emma: This is a difficult one to answer, because writing to me is as natural as breathing and I tend not to think of breathing as quirky and you don’t tend to watch yourself writing. To different people, it might be different things such as my ability to sit and write in a crowded, noisy room, that I’m willing to try different types of writing or that I always read a piece aloud. Reading aloud enables you to hear things you miss when you read silently from a page, such that tongue-twisting second sentence or accidental rhyme in stanza three or that the rhythm changes when you get to stanza four.
Michelle: What’s the most challenging aspect of your writing practise?
Emma: I don’t really have a writing practice. If a poem or story needs to be written, it gets written. I used to tell stories and write them down as a child but was too scared to share them, so I tended to sneak off to a spare classroom during break times or keep a low profile during class so I could think through a story’s plot. This habit hass carried over into adulthood so I can write pretty much anywhere on any device, whether that’s a laptop, phone or paper notebook and can write in the morning before work, in lunch breaks, in a cafe or in my car because I’m good at being early and often find myself sitting in my parked car waiting for the right time or for somewhere to open. I think the trickiest thing is interruption: as a parent, you don’t get a solid block of time to write or plan, so you have to find ways of making the most of smaller chunks of time. Michelle: We’re living through difficult days. Do you have a go-to book that helps you through tough times?
Emma: I do still keep going back to Sylvia Plath’s poems. I know her death overshadows most people’s reading of her poetry but she had some excellent maternity poems and the sheer joy and exuberance of You’re always brings a smile.
Michelle: What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
Emma: I am taking part in NaProWriMo so trying to draft a poem a day for April. I’m also reviewing. Some of the readings and events around the launch of The Significance of a Dress were cancelled, so I’m making plans for replacement events for (hopefully) later in the year, when restrictions due to the coronavirus are lifted.
You can buy all the Arachne books mentioned from our webshop, we will post them out to you.
On 8th March we held an International Women’s Day of readings from female authors and poets, surrounded by the Tatty Divine exhibition at the Stephen Lawrence Gallery. Many thanks to Greenwich University Gallleries for hosting.
Here is Michelle Penn reading her poem from Dusk,The End of Ramadan, and from Time and Tide, The Sinking of Mrs Margaret Brown
We will be doing a VIRTUAL launch on 21st March, via our Facebook page, as we think it wise not to encourage people to congregate, but still want to celebrate our lovely book! We hope to just delay our event at Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, but we’ll see how it goes!
Until I get round to editing the video files, here are some photos from Sunday’s event, where we launched Emma Lee‘s new collection, The Significance of a Dress, and thoroughly celebrated International Women’s Day with poems and flash from Laila Sumpton, Claire Booker, Sarah Lawson, Jenny Mitchell, Julie Easley, Cherry Potts, Michelle Penn, Shamini Sriskandarajah, and Emma Lee!
Uploading the videos from Solstice Shorts 2019, Time & Tidecontinues.
Here is The Sinking of Mrs Margaret Brown by Michelle Penn read at Greenwich by Carrie Cohen, with BSL interpretation by Paul Michaels.
Many of the stories and poems were read at more than one of the venues, so there will be further opportunities to compare and contrast!
Limited edition illustrated book of the material available now only from our webshop or from our events .
We are videoing BSL translations of some of the material, and this will also be on the website in late March, to coincide with the launch of the bookshop version of the book on 21st March at The Old Royal Naval College Visitor Centre in Greenwich. more details soon!
To celebrate the launch of Emma Lee‘s new poetry collection The Significance of a Dress, we are holding an event at the Stephen Lawrence Gallery, University of Greenwich, 10 Stockwell Street, Greenwich SE10 9BD on the actual day SUNDAY 8TH MARCH 2pm.
In 12 days the Summer Solstice occurs, and with it the close of Submissions for this year’s Solstice Shorts Festival, Time and Tide, which will be held on December 21st 2019.
Heading to the coast, and to tidal rivers, we are looking for stories poems and songs with an historical ring to them, from writers anywhere in the world. We are looking for live music too, traditional or original – no cover versions! But if you want to sing or play you need to be local to one of our sites, which are…
Aberdeen, Maryport, Holyhead, Greenwich, Hastings, Lisbon (Portugal) and possibly Brighton.
If you are thinking aww, why isn’t there anywhere near me, and you are willing to do the organising (find a venue on the coast or a tidal river, and readers, and publicise the jolly roger out of it), get in touch!
Currently we have LOADS of poems, and hardly any stories, so get a shuffle on short story writers.
We want stories that engage with the sea, in an historical way. so pirates (if you must!), merchant ships, silver darlings, migration, dock workers and ship builders, that sort of thing, but before it turns too macho, remember that the Suffragette magazine was called Time and Tide (because they wait for no man).
We are keen to include stories (in particular) from BAME writers, women, writers with disabilities (esp Deaf writers – you can send BSL video), LGBT writers.
we will also accept works (provided they come with a translation) in Portuguese, Scots Gaelic, Doric and Welsh.
You don’t have long left – Time and Tide won’t wait… via submittable only, where you will find LOTS more info.
In the meantime, here’s a video of one of the poems from last year’s NOON, read last week in the delightful Brockley Brewery, for the Brockley Max Festival, Michelle Penn reading Mandy Macdonald’s Arthur Streeton Advises his Students.
The Knotsman does not exist, you will not find him in history books or collections of ‘bygone’ skills. But there he is, going from house to house, village to village, poem to poem, battlefield to gallows, unravelling knots and problems, physical, emotional and psychological; a new kind of cunning man, not always welcome, not always quite as clever as his fingers and picks would have him believe.
copyright Tyrone Lewis
Wednesday 5th June 7pm
We will be at the lovely Brockley Brewery, 31 Harcourt Road London SE4 2AJ