I’ve just been reading back my last post, written in January, where I blithely say I’ll be posting once a month. HA! As you can see from this late arrival, that plan lasted a whole…one month. Ah well. Never mind! I blame Kendal Poetry Festival, which took place over nine days in February but basically ate the whole of my life from January through to last week. The festival was wonderful, and everything I hoped it would be. I knew the runup to the festival would be hard work, but I didn’t realise how hard the aftermath would be. We’ve been paying over 40 poets, writing the Arts Council Evaluation report, writing a more extensive report of the festival that we plan to use in the future for other things, analysing audience feedback and on and on and on and into the distance.
Each time I think this festival is just TOO MUCH, too much work, too much stress, too much everything, something lovely happens and it is a boost and motivation to do it all again! Whilst Clare and I have been drowning under a mountain of soul-destroying paperwork, the Sabotage Awards 2021 have been running and gathering votes. To be honest, the whole thing had passed me by (see soul-destroying paperwork)- so it was a wonderful surprise to find out that Kendal Poetry Festival is on the shortlist for ‘Best Literature Festival’. The final vote opens April 21st so please keep an eye out for that, and if you enjoyed the festival, then vote for us!
My freelance life for the last three months has been really busy. My main working days are Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 11.30-5pm which is when Ally is at nursery. I try and get as much of my freelance work done as I can on those days. I also usually work from about 9.30pm-11.30pm each night as well, to keep up with everything. And then the husband and I usually halve the remaining time – so I take Ally on a Monday afternoon and a Friday morning. When I write it out like that I have no idea how I’ve fitted all of this in, but somehow it all worked!
As I mentioned in my last blog, I’ve decided to commit to writing/reading for an hour each day and am very pleased that I’ve managed to stick to it, just missing the odd day here and there. This small change that I’ve made has honestly changed my life. I was going to write then that I was lucky that my husband came on board with it and supports me in this, and then deleted it. I feel as if I shouldn’t have to be ‘grateful’ or feel ‘lucky’ – that this hour is the bare minimum that I need to stay sane, but the truth is, I know that it is unusual. I have plenty of friends who are mothers (and some fathers) who don’t have this – either because their partner isn’t supportive, or doesn’t recognise that it is important for them. So yes, I feel lucky and irritated at feeling it, and grateful that my husband understands and supports me in this.
For me the writing hour is also reconnecting me with my musician self, my other life, which really does feel like an other life at the moment as I haven’t picked up my trumpet since before the first lockdown. Writing for one hour a day takes me back to those days at music college when I used to practice for two to three hours a day, every day.
I am also not saying that everyone should write every day. Some people might not be able to for health reasons or work commitments. But for me, this is what works, so I’m continuing on, hopefully at least until the end of the year, but maybe even further. You might be wondering what this has to do with freelance life- nobody is paying me to do it, after all. However, my Writing Hour is intrinsically bound up with my freelance work – more on that later!
KENDAL POETRY FESTIVAL
I’ve already talked a little bit about the festival, in previous posts, so I won’t go on about it anymore! But it was a huge part of my freelance work in the first part of this year.
I usually dread doing commissions and I will admit that my first instinct was to say no when Ilkley Literature Festival got in touch to ask if I’d be interested in writing a poem around the theme of ‘The Natural World’. My first instinct was to say no because my obsessions at the moment are writing about people, and I didn’t know if I could pull it off.
However, as a commission is one of those rare instances that you get paid to write a poem, and I love the people at Ilkley Literature Festival (they gave me a job as Poet in Residence quite a few years ago) and I have trouble saying no to things, I agreed.
This was where my Writing Hour really came into its own, as without it, I would have really struggled and probably have written something that was a bit rubbish. I was working on the poem throughout the lead in to Kendal Poetry Festival and I think for a little bit after the festival as well, which should have been a disaster, but because I’d committed to the hour each day, I just kept working at it.
I read lots of poets that write about landscape during those writing hours, particularly Jonathan Edward and Gillian Clarke, and I thought about how the natural world has basically kept lots of people going, including myself. I live in a small town, on the edge of the Lake District and haven’t gone into the mountains during lockdown. The only exercise I take is to go for a run round the same 3 mile or 6 mile loop, but I can see the mountains from the end of my street. I can run towards them for about a mile before turning off and either heading back into town or into some country lanes. I started thinking about how running roots you into the landscape and into weather, how weather is both noticed and ignored as a runner. Anyway, I ended up writing my first ever villanelle, which I am ridiculously proud of. I wanted a repetitive, looping form because that’s what life feels like at the moment (without slipping into too much misery!)
You can find a video of me reading the poem over at the Ilkley Literature Festival website. I look terrible on the video – months of no sleep and a bad cold and lockdown hair cut are taking their toll but NEVER MIND all of that…for those that don’t want to see the video, I’ve copied an image of the poem below.
A lot of my freelance writing work for the period from January to April has been teaching. I’ve carried on with my Dove Cottage Young Poets group which has expanded quite a bit after some recent recruitment – there are now regularly 18-20 young poets turning up. The group is open to anyone between the ages of 14-25 based in Cumbria – contact me here or Zoe McLain at Wordsworth Grasmere for more information on email@example.com. The group is free to attend and we meet every other Friday between 4pm-6pm.
I’ve also been working with Wordsworth Grasmere to set up a new poetry group for young people between the ages of 11-14. This group is called ‘Untrodden Ways’ and runs every other Tuesday from 4pm-5.30pm. Again, it’s free for young people in Cumbria to attend, and if you’d like more information, contact Zoe McLain at Wordsworth Grasmere on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Needless to say, both groups are currently taking place on Zoom and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
I’ve also been running a series of workshops for Lancaster Literature Festival with a small group of eight poets. These eight poets were chosen from a large number of applicants and it really has been an absolute joy to work with them all. I’ve also ran one Poetry Business workshop and will be doing another one soon – I think there are still spaces for my workshop and for some of the other tutors they are working with – have a look on their website here.
Lastly, I’ve finished the marking for the Approaches to Poetry module at Manchester Metropolitan and am now teaching on the Language and Technique module which is a Creative Writing module. It’s the last week next week and then I’ll be back into marking again.
I’ve really missed performing during lockdown, but I have been doing a few Zoom performances. I read at Lancaster Literature Festival as a stand-in for Sean O’Brien who wasn’t well, and this weekend I’ve just read at the Cardiff Poetry Festival. I read at the Grizzly Pear online reading series, invited by Dove Cottage Young Poet Matthew Sowerby. I found this event very moving – I was definitely the oldest there by about fifteen years, but so many poems about sexual harassment and assault from the young women. The news about Sarah Everard was everywhere and it made me angry and sad at the same time that these young women are going through exactly the same experiences I went through at their age, that sometimes it can feel as if nothing has changed.
WORDSWORTH GRASMERE READING SERIES
I am starting to get into a rhythm with this reading series now – February we had the brilliant Anthony Anaxagorou, March was Sean Hewitt and in April, in just a few weeks time the guest will be Nina Mingya Powles. Nina’s first collection was shortlisted for the Forward Prize and it’s just been announced that the collection is also on the longlist for the RSL Ondaatje Prize for a book that best ‘evokes the spirit of a place’. Tickets are still available for this event, but the open mic is now full. I would love to hit triple figures for this event (our biggest audience so far has been about 65 I think) so please spread the word! Tickets available here and more information about the event available on the Wordsworth Grasmere website.
I am not sure if all of this stuff about what life as a freelance writer actually looks like is completely dry or not, so just in case it is, I am of course going to leave you with a poem! This one is from Pauline Yarwood’s latest pamphlet Loop, published by Wayleave Press. The pamphlet is hot off the press – in fact Pauline is launching it tonight – if you’d like to come along, contact Wayleave over at the website for the zoom link.
Many of you will already know that Pauline was a co-founder of Kendal Poetry Festival, and the co-director of the festival for the first three years. She stepped down from the festival in 2018 to pursue other creative projects, so I’m really happy that she has written this stunning pamphlet.
There’s a great quote by Glyn Maxwell in his book On Poetry where he writes ‘Recurrence of words isn’t repetition. Ever.’ He uses Robert Frost’s famous ‘And miles to go before I sleep/And miles to go before I sleep’, arguing that trying to say the same thing in exactly the same way is pretty much impossible. He says that
What’s intervened between the two technically identical lines is the need to say the same again. Either side of that are two different worlds. The relation of the two lines to thought is entirely different. One line outran thought, the second walks in step with itOn Poetry, Glyn Maxwell, pp45
I haven’t heard Pauline read this poem, but when I read it, and read the second line, I put more emphasis on the ‘this’ and it feels as if the speaker of the poem is trying to reassure themselves that they are still in the world, still part of it, still here. And this feeling of tremor, of vulnerability, of not quite being here, fits the start of the second stanza, where the repetition moves to desire, to repeated ‘I want’. If Maxwell is right, that the first time saying something is an outrunning of thought, and the second time is walking in step with it, that re-definition in line 8-9, from ‘close’ to ‘fall to’ feels as if the speaker is just hanging on to the edge of thought before it changes again.
I wanted to feature this poem here because I think it embodies a lot of the themes in the pamphlet, one of which is walking, is being in the landscape, but another is this balance between action and passivity. There are poems about sailing and climbing and hiking, adventurous poems, and then there are poems about falling and wanting to lie still and give up. This swing between these two different types of energy feels very current to me, although I know it is dangerous to read things through the prism of lockdown when many of the poems were probably written long before it happened, but the bursts of energy alternating with almost a giving up felt very familiar to me.
The poem returns to that first repetition, and the foregrounding of the gate which seems to be both opening into another world, and to be a world in itself, or at least a living thing with roots. A gate is always an opening to another place, but the desire at the end of this poem is to ‘sit at its roots/and not move’. Desire again, to be at a threshold, neither one place or the other.
I love the mystery in this final stanza as well – who is the ‘it’? Someone, or something is following the speaker. At first I thought of the ‘it’ as someone else, a shadowy presence that felt quite ominous. But I think it could also be read as the gate following in a kind of nightmare of never moving forward, which makes me think of lockdown all over again!
Do check out Wayleave Press – they are a fantastic publisher based in Lancaster and I know they would be very happy if they got a sudden flurry of orders for Pauline’s pamphlet – and feel free to comment below, I’ll make sure Pauline sees all the comments!
Thank you all for reading, and thank you to Pauline for allowing me to post her poem on here.
this is the gate I walk through
this is the gate I walk through
sometimes a fallen branch
between the metal and the wall
muffles the sound
I want unmuffled sound
I want to hear the clang of the gate
as I let it close behind me
as I let it fall to behind me
I want to hear the sound
echo round the valley
as I walk down the path
away from the gate I walk through
this is the gate I walk through
this is the gate I walk through
sometimes I look back
I look back from the gate I walk through
to see if it’s following
to see if it’s following
sometimes I want to go back
I want to go back through
the gate I walk through
and sit at its roots
sit at its roots
and not move