Another month – how do they go so quickly?

March always feels as if it should be a month of waking up. It’s when nature really kicks into gear at the end of a long winter. The nights are lighter, I can ditch the heavy winter coat, and there are daffodils in the jug on my windowsill. Oh, and lambs in the field. One of my favourite things about spring, and one of the joys of living in the country: getting to see the lambs skipping and playing in the fields around the house.

Of course, it isn’t just about flowers or adorable farmyard animals. It’s also (like every month) about writing.

And I couldn’t have asked for a better start to the month. At the beginning of March, a whole host of poets & poetry lovers make their annual pilgrimage to St Andrews in Fife, for one of the best poetry festivals around: StAnza. I first went to StAnza during my MLitt year at St Andrews, when I volunteered as a Participant Liaison Officer, looking after poets & speakers, and taking them to and from the venue (or ‘PL-ing’, as it’s known by regular festival volunteers).

This year was my third StAnza, and as wellas PL-ing, I was also the festival’s in-house blogger. This meant writing a blog post each day about what had happened at the festival the day before. In some ways, this was quite a challenge, as there was pressure to write something (and something interesting, too) every day. I couldn’t just switch off for a day. But the flip-side of that was that it made me focus. During every event, I was concentrating, making notes, making sure I had something to say about it for the blog. Which meant that I probably took in more from the festival than normal – which is saying a lot, because I usually come away with my head stuffed full of thoughts & words & ideas.

Since I first volunteered there in 2013, the festival has really become a kind of family. It’s such an inspiring week, and has become a highlight of my social and creative calendar.

Read my StAnza blog posts here:

StAnza blog post writing

At the end of February, I learned I’d been selected for Penguin Random House’s Write Now mentoring scheme. In March, Penguin Random House publicly announced the list of mentees, which was exciting, and pretty much wholly occupied my twitter stream for a while. The actual mentoring process hasn’t started yet, but already it’s pushed me to write more of the manuscript, which can only be a good thing.

Poetry-wise it’s been a month of successes, too.

This month, the shortlist for the Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize was announced. There are four writers shortlisted, and this year, my poem was one of them! Now I need to figure out what to wear for the prizegiving next month…

And, as if that wasn’t enough, the following week I received second prize in the Tannahill Poetry Prize, based in Scotland. We went up to Lochwinnoch for the prizegiving evening – me & my fan club (aka parents). It was an evening of music, courtesy of local folk duo Witches Brew, and poetry, from the other prizewinning writers and from judge Sally Evans. Cue a bit of a Cumbrian takeover, by both myself and Kathleen Jones (who won the third prize & is also a Cumbrian poet).

I’ve also delivered a few schools’ workshops this month, for New Writing North and the Wordsworth Trust – including one at Dove Cottage, which is always good fun. (Although sometimes it feels as though you’re writing with Wordsworth looking over your shoulder.)

Mostly, this month just feels as though it’s flown by. Like the writing time has just disappeared in a whirlwind of everything else happening. Which is maybe a good thing. Sometimes I think that I need a break from writing. Creativity is a muscle, and while it’s good to exercise that muscle, it can also get overworked. Sometimes I just think I need to give the writing muscles a break.

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THE MONTH IN BOOKS:

This month has been a fairly quiet one for reading, with only two books (though numerous individual poems – too many to list here). Part of this is that I simply haven’t made enough time for reading. Part of it is that I think my brain is starting to feel saturated, clogged up with words. But that’s fine – I have a break coming up very soon… (But shhh. Spoilers.)

This month’s two books are:

  • The Idle Traveller, by Dan Kieran
  • The Quiet American, by Graham Greene

THE MONTH IN PICTURES:

About a month ago, I wrote a post about how not to perform at an open mic night. Today, I wanted to expand on that, and talk about how to behave in a workshop.

Now before I start, I want to say that I love writing workshops. I’m part of 4 separate writing groups who meet in person, I’m in a couple of online writing communities, and I have two friends who I submit writing to on a weekly basis. Feedback workshops were a big part of my Masters, and I’ve benefited from them on a few writing residentials, too. I also happen to run writing workshops myself.

And yet…

If you regularly attend writing workshops, then you’ll probably instantly be able to think of a few examples of people who’ve rubbed you up the wrong way. This is to be expected. You’re putting a group of individuals in a room together, and basically asking them to dissect each other’s babies. It’s not surprising that people can feel a little raw, and tempers can flare.

Still, it needn’t turn into Hunger Games-style armageddon, or some sort of Mean Girls back-stabbing exercise in passive aggression. It’s basically all about consideration for others.

Katie Hale, Cumbrian writer / poet, runs creative writing poetry workshops for young people and children in schools and colleges

HOW NOT TO TAKE PART IN A WRITING WORKSHOP:

  • Say, ‘Here’s what I think of this poem,’ and then rip the piece of paper into tiny shreds.
  • Bring along your best poem, which you have no intention of changing. After all, you’re not there to actually workshop your poem, are you? You’re there to impress everyone with what an amazing poet you are. And people will be so bowled over by the fact they can’t find a single criticism to make about your writing, they’ll instantly want you to be their best writer-friend.
  • Listen to everyone’s feedback, then say, ‘Thanks, but I’m not going change it because I’ve already published it.’
  • Bring along that 20-page poem that’s been sitting in your desk drawer (unless you absolutely know that this is the kind of workshop that accepts longer pieces).
  • Use the phrase: ‘This poem’s shit.’
  • Aggressively defend your poem. Someone has taken the time to give you their considered opinion, so surely it’s only right that you batter them back down over it until they see it your way.
  • On the flip side: aggressively attack someone else’s poem. Sure, it’s their poem, but if they don’t agree with a piece of your advice, then you should keep repeating it (getting louder each time) until they do agree.
  • Take a phone call in the middle of the workshop.
  • While someone else is trying to make a point, have your own conversation – especially if that conversation is about how bad the poem is.
  • If it’s the kind of workshop with writing exercises, wait till the end to tell the workshop leader that you hate writing exercises because you find them prescriptive, and therefore haven’t written anything all workshop.
  • Tell everyone that you don’t really like workshopping your poems, because you don’t trust other people to understand them.

Got any more workshop horror stories? I’d love to hear them! Comments below….

Last week, I made my annual trip north to StAnza International Poetry Festival. This was my third festival volunteering for StAnza, and as well as my usual job of looking after poets, I had the responsibility of being the festival’s in-house blogger.

Amongst all the wonderful talks and readings and performances, there was one event that stood out as being not about the art (at least, not in its purest form), but about the practicalities of making that art pay.

‘Making a Living as a Poet’ was an event sponsored by the Society of Authors. Chaired by Ken Cockburn, poets Sarah Hesketh and Harry Giles talked about how to make money from being a poet – although, as Harry qualified, ‘You can make a living from poetry, but it’s a crap living.’ 

That aside, I thought I’d share with you some of the wisdom learned during that event.

Reading April De Angelis, 'Playhouse Creatures'
April De Angelis, ‘Playhouse Creatures’

HOW TO MAKE A LIVING AS A POET:

  • Find cheap rent. Poetry doesn’t pay well. Unless you have some uncanny luck or you’ve made a deal with the devil to bag a big prize every couple of months, you’re not going to make it onto the Forbes rich list through writing poems. So living somewhere where the rent is a bit cheaper, and living costs are more affordable, is going to be vital.
  • Turn up to stuff. Like so many fields of work, poetry and writing are all about making connections. I don’t mean this in a kind of ‘old boys’ way, but if someone recognises your name on an application, it’s a good start. If you get to know people, they’re more likely to think of you when it comes to work. This goes for organisations, arts councils, collaborations with other artists… The good thing is that poetry networking isn’t nearly as scary as big business networking; it isn’t about striding into a room in a sharp suit, killer heels and blood-red lipstick, then bowling everyone over with with that cut-throat marketing pitch. It’s actually just about hanging out with other lovely artsy people and having interesting conversations.
  • Say yes to everything. Become known as the person who will do the work, rather than the person who refuses the work. Sarah Hesketh started the event by saying that, by accepting any work she could in the field of literature, there’s now ‘a touch of poetry’ on everything she does. Or, as Harry Giles said: you can’t get a full-time job just making art, but you can stitch together enough arts jobs to almost make a living.
  • Be nice. People don’t re-employ people who are rude to them. It’s just common sense.
  • Be professional. Same thing. If you never meet deadlines, or you constantly bitch about your colleagues (which will get back to them – it’s a small world), or you don’t do the work you’ve agreed to do, then people are unlikely to come back to you when the next employment opportunity comes around.
  • Seek out funding. Don’t wait for the work to come to you. Go out and find it. A couple of people seemed surprised by this – isn’t it pushy to ask for work / funding when it hasn’t been offered? But let’s use a more quotidien analogy: grocery shopping. Let’s say you’ve run out of food. Your cupboards are empty, there’s nothing but that mouldy bit of cheddar at the back of the fridge, and all you have in your freezer is half a bag of frozen peas. There are two options. Option 1: sit at your kitchen table twiddling your thumbs and hope someone knocks on your door with a trolley-full of food. Option 2: go to the supermarket and do some food shopping. Obviously, the most obvious and effective of these is option 2. You go out and get some food. It’s the same with work and funding. Instead of waiting for someone to come along and offer you a residency, get in touch with the organisation where you’d like to be poet-in-residence and work together to put together a funding bid. Instead of wishing someone would pay you just to write poems, apply for PhD funding: 3 years of effectively being paid to write a collection of poems. Of course, this all means more admin, but as Harry put it: ‘Making art is also the amin of making art.’ Which brings me onto…
  • Do an apprenticeship. As with any industry, you need to learn how it operates, and have the skills to operate within it. Sarah Hesketh spent a few years working for small arts organisations, in the kind of admin role where she learned how to do everything: events planning; marketing; press releases; funding bids; working with artists; evaluation… All the arts admin skills you need to operate as an individual artist. Of course, this isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. Some artists can’t think of anything worse than having to spend half (or even most) of their day doing admin. Which is fine. There are plenty of other ways to support your writing. Get a job in a cafe or a bar. Work in a funeral parlour. Drive an ice cream van. As long as you’re doing something that you enjoy and that still leaves you at least some time for the writing, then that’s fine. Living as a writer can be as individual as the writing itself.
  • Don’t rely on publishing a book as a way of getting rich. Harry Giles: ‘You make beer money publishing a book. Think about a book as a business card.’ The sad fact is that you don’t get 6-figure advances for poetry. Most books and pamphlets are published by small independent presses and a run of 500 is generally considered pretty good going. So just because you’ve got a book- or pamphlet-deal, it doesn’t mean you can’t start shopping for a luxury yacht. Although the actual writing of poems may be the biggest thing in terms of importance, it’s probably going to be the smallest in terms of actual financial income. But…
  • Make really good art. Although it might not make much money in and of itself, it’s still important that you write really good poems. If you’re applying for residencies or academic positions or running poetry workshops, then the people you’re teaching or applying to will want to know you’re competent in your art form. It isn’t a financial goldmine, but it’s still the thing around which all the rest of your work centres. Which is good, because the poetry is probably the reason you’re doing all this in the first place.

Other than that, just keep your fingers crossed you win something big, like the National Poetry Competition. There’s always an element of luck in life – do you meet the right person who’s going to love and champion your work, or do you write that poem which happens to speak to the personal experience of the editor selecting work for a magazine? But the more you go to things and meet people and put your work out and apply for opportunities and get involved, the greater the chance of those things happening.

The more nets you throw out, the more chance you have of catching a fish.

Read why I’m aiming for 100 literary rejections this year.

This month I’ve been thinking quite a lot about list poems. I’ve been running more workshops than usual in primary schools, and list poems are always a good tool for getting to know a class of children, how well they work, and their writing ability. They also provide a useful structure onto which the children can graft their own ideas and imagination.

They can also be a pretty good writing tool for adults, too. 

I’ve also been teaching in a couple of Catholic primary schools, which has had me thinking about biblical language. As a child, I went to Sunday School most weekends, and I’ve spent a lot of years singing in church and chapel choirs. I’ve always loved the language of church services, particularly Catholic and high Church of England. It’s a heightened language, and there’s a kind of poetry to it. It’s full of repetition, for one thing. 

Take the Apostle’s Creed: 

I BELIEVE in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
and born of the Virgin Mary.

He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.

He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.

Amen.

There’s the repetition of ‘I believe’, the repetition of ‘He…’ (He was conceived / He descended to the dead / He ascended into heave), and then the repeated structure of the final section. 

Part of the purpose of this repetition is surely to make the creed more memorable, but it also provides emphasis. 

So that’s my task for you. This month, I’d like to you write your own creed. 

It doesn’t need to be religious. You might believe that little green aliens landed in 19th century Paris and were responsible for building the Eiffel Tower. Or you might believe in love at first sight. Or that the cup of coffee you’re drinking right at this moment is the best cup of coffee in the entire world – or the worst. 

Whatever you believe, I’d like you to write about it. Set it down. Speak it out. Proclaim it to the hills. 

Good luck! 

Writing prompt - Katie Hale, Cumbrian writer

What they say about January being like a kick-start into the new year isn’t true in the slightest. It’s all about February. January is like the push-start you have to give the rusty old banger to get it out of the driveway; Febraury is when the thing really splutters and roars into action.

In other words, for the shortest month of the year, it’s been kind of a busy one.

My Writing Life: February - Katie Hale, Cumbrian writer
An evening stroll

For one thing, I’ve been running loads of schools workshops, for the Wordsworth Trust and for New Writing North. I’ve got to work in some new schools, and go back to St Patrick’s School in Workington, where I’m working with the same amazing group of Yr 4s over the course of two years. Some truly amazing poems – some which have been running around in my head ever since. In fact, thery’re so good that they deserve their own blog post. Which they’ll get.

The downside to schools workshops? All the bugs that are going round. I’m used to coughs and colds (I seem to have one about 50% of the time), but a couple of weeks ago I picked up the weirdest bug I’ve ever had – so weird that at first I didn’t even realise it was a bug. It was a headache. I say headache – I really mean migraine. And that was it – no sickness, no cough or cold, nothing. Just this headache, which stayed for around 36 hours and then mysteriously vanished, though not without making me miss seeing Narvik at Theatre by the Lake. Humph.

Maybe being forced to spend a day in bed isn’t hugely terrible though… Maybe my brain just needed that bit of a rest, as it’s pretty much been all go since the start of the month.

The month started with a big one: a trip to Manchester for the WriteNow insight day. WriteNow is a scheme run by Penguin Random House to engage and develop minority writers. The day itself was full-on and intense, with talks from writers, editors, agents, publishers – as well as a wonderful opportunity to meet other emerging writers, and an invaluable one-to-one with an editor, looking over a section of my manuscript. It felt like a year’s worth of literary knowledge, experience and connections, all packed into a single day. So no wonder I came home and slept for 11 hours!

And, in a nice gesture towards symmetry, at the end of the month (as in, yesterday) I discovered that I’ve been selected as one of 12 new writers on the WriteNow mentoring scheme! Which basically involves a year’s mentoring from an editor at Penguin Random House. Needless to say, I spent much of the evening (after Word Mess) dancing round my bedrom with wild abandon.

So, with writing bug well and truly lodged, I started out on the rest of the month, joining a new writing group as well as going to a couple of tried & tested old ones. I also made it to Poem and a Pint in Ulverston for the first time – one of those things I’ve been meaning to do for months, which was a lovely evening. (Thanks as well to Kim Moore for those homemade scones…)

Obviously, there’s been a lot of writing happening this month, as always, and I’ve just finished another intensive writing session with Stephen Hyde, working on our rewrite of the musical. It’s a funny one, working collaboratively – in some ways, hugely rewarding as you work with double the brain-power, and in some ways tricky, as you have double the creative doubts to wrestle with. Still, it’s the results that count, and the session was the most productive we’ve ever had – desptie the fact it was only 5 days instead of our usual week, or maybe because of it. We even had a chance to record a Face to Face conversation for this blog, all about the collaborative creative process.

So what next? Well, March is going to be a busy one, with StAnza Poetry Festival looming large, followed by a lot more schools workshops before I head off to Cambodia & Vietnam! But that’s another story. For now, here are some books:

THE MONTH IN BOOkS:

  • Human Acts, by Han Kang
  • The Heretic, by Richard Bean
  • Dreams of Violence, by Stella Feehilly
  • Land of the Dead; Helter Skelter, by Neil LaBute

THE MONTH IN PICTURES: