Like many people, I can’t say that I’m not relieved to see the back of 2020! However, even amongst the global pandemic, the misery of lockdown and the loneliness of not seeing as much of friends and family as I would like, there have been some wonderful and magical things that have happened this year, so I thought I’d resurrect my annual review blog post this year (I think it fell by the wayside last year).
So I’m going to cycle back through 2020 month by month and hopefully find a highlight for each one!
This was the month that Ally started nursery at just seven months old. She seems so little now and she is 19 months old, so I can’t quite believe, looking back that I was brave enough to take her and hand her over to a stranger. Of course back in January, I could go in with her for lots of visits before finally leaving her there. I wouldn’t exactly call this a highlight because I still feel like I’m being torn in half – I both want to be with her and I want to work and these two things are not compatible. I still miss her when she is at nursery – I still obsessively check the parent app for photos and updates from the nursery, but that decision to put her into nursery in January meant that I could finish my PhD in time.
I still can’t quite believe I’m writing this but in February I went to London to the actual Abbey Road Studios to record a poetry album with the wonderful Cerys Matthews. The album is called We Come From The Sun and there are some amazing poets on it – you can watch a promo video here and pre-order the album if you feel so inclined! Cerys Matthews Announces Ground-Breaking New Poetry Album ‘We Come From The Sun’ (abbeyroad.com)
I remember Chris, Ally and I got the train down to London really early, and Ally had woken me up all through the night, so I felt awful. I did manage to get my photo taken outside the Abbey Road studio by Cerys Matthews though 🙂
Also in February, I had a final meeting with two of my supervisors Nikolai Duffy and Michael Symmons Roberts. This meeting was really important because it was the first time Michael had read my whole PhD (rather than just the poems). I was really nervous in case he said it was terrible or thought the whole premise and way I’d structured it was not going to work, but he liked it, and the rest, as you say is history!
All through February, I’ve got entries in my diary like ‘Ally in nursery 11.30 -5pm. Look at Russian Formalism’ (that’s 13th February) or 18th Feb ‘Ally in nursery – work on relational failure section’. Just looking at those juxtapositions between mothering and academic thinking and writing makes me dizzy. Probably like a lot of people, I am often critical of myself and not as kind as I should be, but I feel a lot of tenderness towards my February 2020 self. I think she did ok.
Oh March! Where to start. I was supposed to go to Sweden to read at Littfest on the 12th March. Until quite late on the 11th March, I was still swithering about whether to go or not – I was worried about getting stuck out there and unable to get back to Ally. As it happened, the festival had to cancel because of the pandemic and the UK itself went into lockdown on the 23rd March.
Throughout February, whilst trying to finish the small matter of a PhD thesis, I’d also been commissioned by the BBC to write 5-7 minutes worth of poems in response to The Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth/Coleridge. This was one of those commissions I just couldn’t say no to, even though to say it was stressful doing it at the same time as the thesis is an understatement. But somehow I wrote my poems and went to record them in Salford on the 16th March at the BBC studios. I didn’t realise at the time that this would be the last in-person work I would do for a while.
Just before lockdown descended, I handed in my thesis in person on the 19th March, but the shadow of what was about to happen was definitely making itself felt. I took a selfie of me and my bound thesis and then scarpered home pretty quickly.
It was this week that my freelance work started to be cancelled – a ‘Poetry Bus’ that I was doing with Clare Shaw for the Wordsworth Trust on the 19th March, a poetry workshop in Barrow and a residential writing course at Ty Newydd – all cancelled that week which added up to nearly £2000 of work. By the end of March, I was starting to really panic about money and finances. I was fully freelance for the first time and I’d carefully planned my work once I finished my PhD and I had enough booked in the diary to survive – and suddenly it was all disappearing.
Throughout April, I was doing a lot of reading for the Forward Prizes. Honestly, it might sound like a nightmare, reading over 200 books but it kept me sane during those early lockdown days. I did start slowly making my way through from January, but I picked up the pace a lot once the thesis was handed in. It was really wonderful to have this deep reading and immersion in poetry to focus on when everything else was at a standstill.
The nurseries were shut so Chris was looking after Ally a lot whilst I read hundreds of poetry books. At the end of April, I was due to go to St Ives to run the annual residential down there but obviously that was cancelled.
And I almost forgot (how could I!) that April is National Poetry Writing Month and I actually managed it this year, a poem a day, egged on by various friends and my twin sister. Looking back, this was one of my best 2020 decisions – it’s led to the formation of a weekly critiquing group which has meant I’ve had to write a poem every week. It feels like this group, probably more than any other I’ve been in has really pushed my writing on, partly because of the intense schedule, but also because of the high calibre of writers that take part. And that is to say nothing of the friendship, which it feels like an honour to be on the receiving end of.
Throughout a bit of April and May, I started mentoring poets. I’ve always done a little bit of this, but quickly realised that this would need to be developed to become my main source of income. I now have six long-term mentees and really enjoy working with them – it’s definitely something I will continue doing, even when/if everything gets back to normal.
I also ran my first Digital Poetry workshops during May – learnt how to use Zoom, Eventbrite etc. I’m planning to do more of these in the New Year – so watch this space! I also took part in the Seren ‘Stay at Home’ event – my first reading on Zoom – thanks again to my brilliant publishers for inviting me to do this, which was another bit of very welcome freelance work.
Forward judging and judging meetings continued throughout May – so still some intense reading going on in every spare minute I had.
And Ally had her first birthday which we celebrated just the three of us because of lockdown. I remember feeling sad she wouldn’t see her family or any of my friends, and telling myself that at least she wasn’t old enough to really understand the difference.
I had a poem accepted in an anthology called Poems from Pandemia edited by Pat Cotter and published by Southword Editions, ran some workshops for the Poetry Business and spent the weekend of what should have been Kendal Poetry Festival feeling sorry for myself.
I was commissioned by Ledbury Poetry Festival to write a poem in response to current events and I read the resulting poem ‘For My Daughter’ at an event in July at the re-organised online Ledbury Poetry Festival. I am full of admiration for Ledbury for the speed in which they organised an online festival – they acted swiftly and put on an amazing weekend of events. I hosted the Ledbury Versopolis event as well which felt really special – to hear different languages and connect to poets from across Europe at a time when it felt like the world, or at least the world I could move about in was shrinking.
The Forward Prize shortlists had been announced and in July I got to interview two of the shortlistees. First was the amazing Nina Mingya Powles. You can see the interview here, and I recommend buying her first collection, Magnolia 木蘭 published by Nine Arches Press. The second was Rachel Long – interview here and her first collection is called My Darling from the Lions, published by Picador, and also highly recommended.
I also read for the Over the Edge reading series on Zoom – it was lovely to do a reading again, even if it was online.
August was pretty quiet apart from my PhD viva. My two examiners were Jean Sprackland and Sinead Morrisey, and now the extreme anxiety and stress of actually doing it is over, I can appreciate what an amazing gift my viva was, to be able to talk about my work with these two fabulous writers. And I passed (with minor typos) and it all turned out ok and I couldn’t go out and celebrate so I stayed at home and had an afternoon tea instead.
In August, I also had some poems published by MAL journal and read at the launch, alongside some intimidatingly talented thinkers and writers – you can read the poems here
More cancellations happened over these last few months, but again, another upsetting one was the chance to go and read in Slovenia at the Days of Poetry and Wine Festival towards the end of August. Again, I live in hope that eventually I’ll be able to go there and read when things get back to normal.
September bought another Forward Prize interview with the brilliant Pascale Petit – talking about her collection Tiger Girl. You can see the interview here and the final judging meeting for the Forwards took place during this month. Again, it was really exciting and invigorating to talk about poetry with the other judges and the whole Forward experience is definitely one of the highlights for me of 2020.
In September, I ran an online residential for Ty Newydd with co-tutor Jonathan Edwards which was really enjoyable and again, another welcome bit of freelance work.
At the end of September the ‘Contains Strong Language’ festival came to Cumbria, if in a socially-distanced way. I got the opportunity to read my Lyrical Ballads commissioned poems again alongside Helen Mort (who also read Jake Polley’s work who couldn’t make it) and Zaffar Kunial (who appeared via a recording). You can watch the video of this event here BBC Arts – Contains Strong Language, 2020, New Lyrical Ballads at Contains Strong Language. I also appeared on The Verb – again can’t quite believe I’m writing that alongside Helen Mort, Luke Wright and Hussain Manawer – you can listen again to this episode of The Verb here BBC Radio 3 – The Verb, Wordsworth: Experiments in Living at Contains Strong Language. I also appeared on another Radio 4 programme about my now home-town Barrow, much-maligned, usually by those who haven’t even been here! This was a show hosted by Luke Wright and Kate Davis was also reading/talking on this show.
At the end of September I ran the first of my ‘Poetry and Everyday Sexism’ events, drawing on my PhD thesis and using audience polls to make the whole event interactive. It was on Zoom, and sold out in about two hours! Thanks to all of those participants who took a punt on what was something new and a bit different.
I ran another online residential in October, this time for Garsdale Retreat – again a fantastic and intense week and the Forward Prize ceremony took place, again all on Zoom, which I was sad about because I would have liked to have gone to London and swanned about and drank wine, but never mind. Caroline Bird was the winner of Best Collection, Will Harris for Best First Collection and Malika Booker for Best Published Poem – you can find more about these fabulous winners and the other shortlisted poets at the Forward Prize website.
Throughout September, October and November I was teaching mostly online but one session a week face to face at Manchester Metropolitan University. It has been to put it mildly, really hard work. If I hear one more person talk about students not being taught I will scream. All I have seen is lecturers and colleagues doing their absolute best to provide quality resources and teaching in very difficult circumstances.
I curated an episode of Poetry Please in November – and recorded it whilst sat in my pyjamas in my living room. The wonders of technology. You can listen again here.
I also hosted the first Poem and a Pint event with the brilliant Jacqueline Saphra in November – I’m sure we will put at least one more on via Zoom in the New Year, so again, watch this space.
I found out in November that I won the Ledbury Poetry Competition – again can’t believe I’m writing that either. The judge was a poet I hugely admire, Liz Berry. Winning was a nice surprise. And even nicer as in December, my roof started leaking, so the prize money is going to repair the roof and sort our guttering etc out!
A leaking house roof, the cancellation of my annual Poetry Carousel residential and a lot of terrible weather have been a challenge this month.
But highlights have been organising an online launch for one of my closest friends Jennifer Copley (her book is available from Pindrop Press – called What Happens to Girls – it’s brilliant – buy it). I also went to the launch of another friend’s pamphlet – Rachel Davies with her Every Day I Promise Myself – again another fantastic pamphlet, well worth the money!
And the other wonderful thing that happened in December was finding out that I’d been successful in my application to the Arts Council for a ‘Developing Your Creative Practice’ grant. I had no expectations that I would be successful – my project is to write a book of lyric essays and the money I’ve been awarded means I’ll get one day a week for eight months to concentrate on this. Again, this feels like a bit of a dream. So that was my 2020 – a whistle stop tour – just one more thing I’ve missed out…
My 2020 Creative Practice
Apart from finishing my PhD thesis which I very much see as part of my creative practice, particularly because of the form the thesis is structured in and the way the creative and the critical work talk to each other, I also managed to finish my second collection, finally, finally. Seren have agreed to publish it and it is scheduled for October 2021, when I’m hoping that things will be at least a little more back to normal and I’ll be able to do some live readings.
I also at some point during 2020, although I don’t know when, managed to write a lyric essay, which then went on to win £500 in the Southword Essay competition. You can read it in Southword 39 . The other winner was Helen Mort, and her essay is really beautiful and worth buying the magazine for that alone.
I also wrote another lyric essay called provisionally What The Trumpet Taught Me which is unsurprisingly about trumpet playing, but also about gender and class. Subject to funding, this will be published as a short book in Autumn 2022, but I won’t mention the publisher here yet just in case they don’t get their funding and it all falls through!
I’ve got a few other lyric essays on the go at the moment – one about motherhood, and the other about domestic violence and its aftermath – both have been submitted to different journals so fingers crossed for those.
I am still writing poems – mainly about motherhood and bodies and fear and anxiety. I haven’t sent any of the new poems out anywhere yet, although I did read one at Rachel’s launch. They still feel too new to publish – I don’t know yet if they are interim poems or the real deal.
And now it is 11pm on New Years Eve, and usually I would be standing on stage with the soul band I play with, the Soul Survivors. I would be worrying about my lip and whether it will make it through the next set. It would be red hot on stage with the lights and the dance floor would be full, there would be queues at the bar, people would be hugging and leaning in to each other to be heard above the music. This is the first New Year’s Eve in years I’ve been in my pyjamas and been at home. I thought I’d be fed up – but Ally went to bed at 7pm ( last night she decided to party from 1.30am till 6am – I’m not even joking) so we watched Home Alone and I ate two bags of chocolate to celebrate the last night of this strangest of years.
This feels like a bit of a self-centred blog post, but I wanted to focus a little on what I have done, despite everything this year. I wanted to look inward a little instead of thinking about the terrible things that are happening, the incompetence of the people who should be looking after the country…Somehow we have all muddled through – we have made it this far! Both in this blog and in life 🙂
I hope you have a peaceful New Year, and thank you for the friendship and support. I hope to see as many of you as possible in 2021.