This week I was planning to write a long and highly thoughtful blog post about some aspect of writing, but I think I used up all my writing juices on completing the first draft of the novel (!) – so I decided to be topical instead, and share a teaser poem from my upcoming pamphlet, Breaking the Surface (Flipped Eye).

(By the way, if you haven’t already put it in your diary, the launch is on Fri 2nd June! More here.)

Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway

after Turner

So slight it could almost be an accident
in the turmoil of colour and oil, racing
across the wingspan of the bridge
into the present – a flick of a hare

boxing the future, jacking its sharp angles
over dabbled green, its ears slipstreamed
to the focal point, and back legs springing
like a voice reaching the end of a question.

It runs to show man the limits of his progress.
It runs in terror of the industrial age.
It runs to demonstrate the engine’s speed.
It runs because it is a hare and hares run.


Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway‘ was first published in The Compass

BREAKING THE SURFACE

{pamphlet launch, reading & open mic}

Friday 2nd June, 7:30pm
Penrith Old Fire Station, Bridge Lane, Penrith, CA11 8HY

FREE*

‘Katie Hale’s nimble poems, attuned to both the mythic and the quotidian, are full of the delighted surprise and sadness of being alive. Read them and be thrilled.’ – Jacob Polley

It’s here. It’s happening. The poems I’ve been pouring myself into creating for the past few years are coming together in a physical thing that can be bought and read and carried around. Which basically means you can keep my soul in your handbag.

The launch event will be me reading from the pamphlet, Breaking the Surface, alongside guest readers (who I’ll be announcing gradually to increase anticipation, the way they do the Glastonbury line-up), and open mic slots for anyone who wants to sign up on the night. Come along for a night of poetry celebration!

There’ll also be a bring & share supper, so please do dig out that secret family recipe / buy a big bag of crisps on the way over.

Breaking the Surface is published by Flipped Eye.

*Please bring food to share. Bar on site.

Let me know if you’re coming HERE.

Sometimes, writing is about not writing. Sometimes, you have to put down the pen and get busy living in order to have anything to write about. At least, that’s my excuse for April.

April has been a month of clearing my head of all the wordy detritus that’s built up there over the past few months. Honestly, I think I needed the break. At the end of March my brain just felt stuffed, and writing felt difficult (more difficult than usual), as though I was forcing the words out kicking and screaming. Creativity is a muscle, after all, and any muscle can become overworked and strained.

So I’ve spent the past month travelling.

Cambodia. Vietnam.

Katie Hale - Vietnam
I’ve spent a fair bit of time on boats, and a fair bit of time eating all the delicious food I can get my hands on. The only reason I’m not currently the size of a house is that I’ve also spent quite a bit of time walking, whether that’s wandering round towns and cities, or the 3 day trekking tour I bravely embarked on in the hilly northwest of Vietnam around Sa Pa.

I’ve always believed that walking is good for writing. I’m not alone in this belief: I know a number of writers who extol the virtues of a good walk for clearing the brain. Wordsworth used to compose sonnets during his walks on the beach at Calais.

Maybe it’s something to do with the rhythm. Maybe it’s the chemical change enacted on the body by keeping it in motion. Maybe it’s the feel of ground beneath the feet, of groundedness. Whatever the answer, I’ve come home itching to pick up my pen and get the ball rolling on my various projects again.

Well – I say I’ve come home… I did, sort of. For about 2 days. Now I’m off again, although this time I feel slightly more justified in that I’m currently travelling for work. (I love saying that: travelling for work. It sounds so important & businesslike.)

This week, I’ve spent a couple of days in Dublin, where I was shortlisted for the Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize. I didn’t win, but the evening was lovely enough even without winning. Each of the shortlisted poets read their poem, and we were then all presented with our cheques (!) and photographed, and everyone drank wine. There was so much wine on tap all evening: poetry events done right.

Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize award ceremony - Katie Hale
Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize award ceremony

After the award ceremony, there was a reading by Don Paterson and Colette Bryce. I’d heard Colette read before at a workshop weekend at the Wordsworth Trust, but it was wonderful hearing her read from her new Selected Poems, like a cross-section of her writing career so far. As for Don Paterson, I’ve heard him read a few times, as he was one of the tutors on my Masters at St Andrews, but I always enjoy hearing him read: his precise and often ominous poems interspersed with moments of his self-deprecating humour. As with all good poetry readings, this was followed by a trip to the pub, and a long conversation with Don & my friend Ann, who did the Masters at the same time as me and completely surprised me by showing up the the Ballymaloe Prize reading to hear me read. A wonderful affirmation of the generous nature of the poetry world.

From Dublin, I flew to Gatwick, to take the train to Petersfield for the South Downs Poetry Festival Residential, tutored by Kim Moore & Hugh Dunkerley, which I was lucky enough to receive an emerging writers’ bursary for. The long weekend focussed broadly on landscape, with workshops encouraging us to think about the internal and external landscapes, journeys through them, and how we address and perceive elements of the landscape around us. After a month’s break from writing creatively, the residential was a baptism of fire, and I came away with five almost-complete poems, and a couple of bits of raw material that may or may not shape up into something in the future. So talk about a productive weekend!

Writing in Halong Bay, Vietnam - Katie Hale
Writing in Halong Bay, Vietnam

The Month in Books: 

You know when you’re browsing an airport bookshops between flights, and you aren’t really there because you’re planning to buy a book, you’re just trying to kill some of your layover time? And then suddenly you see a friend’s book on the bestseller stand, and obviously it’s like fate intervening and telling you that you can’t not buy it? At Singapore airport, that’s exactly what happened to me, when I saw (and of course couldnt’ resist buying) Cecilia Vinesse’s heart-warming young adult novel, Seven Days of You. Cecilia was another students on the St Andrews creative writing Masters at the same time as me, so it was particularly special to be able to buy and read a book that I’d heard so much about, and seen during the earlier stages of its creation process.

Other than that, I’ve been reading quite a bit about Cambodia & Vietnam, in an effort to connect my reading with my travels. I love doing this: I love that experience of reading about a place, and then looking up from the page to find that I’m actually there.

  • Cambodian Stories from the Gatiloke
  • The Sorrow of War, by Bao Ninh
  • Seven Days of You, by Cecilia Vinesse
  • The Clothing of Books, by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • The Quiet American, by Graham Greene

Reading list - Katie Hale
The Month in Pictures: 

(During my 4 weeks in Cambodia & Vietnam, I took over 3000 photos. Don’t worry. They’re not all posted here.)

Crockery
hard white seeds that don’t grow in the ground

The word has left you. Instead, you turn
your plate-like hands, the way a ploughshare
turns up rocks, or the bones of small mammals.
You stare at the creases in the loose squares
of your palms, as though each
is a path you’ve never travelled.

Sometimes, we try to follow them –
trace them back down all the years
to when their route was still uncut: farm tracks
not yet tarmacked, or sheep trods across
a common field, where footsteps still raised
a breath of dry earth; where the seeds,
secreted in the ground, would wake in later months
as beetroot, potatoes, carrots, parsnips, swede.


‘Crockery’ first appeared in the 2015 Templar Anthology, Mill

 

 

 

Until very recently, I was an unbeliever. I’m not talking about religion or magic or the supernatural – I’m talking about writers’ block. If you’d asked me a year ago, I’d have said there was no such thing. I thought it was all a figment of the imagination.

Then it came for me.

In some ways, I stand by what I said: it is all in the mind. But: ‘Of course it’s all in your head. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t real.’ (Thanks, Dumbledore.)

The way I see it, there are two types of writers’ block, each with their own different cure.

TYPE ONE:

The Easy Type

I’ve met so many people who tell me they have trouble writing. When I ask them how often they write, the answer is often something along the lines of: ‘I’m not writing at the moment, I’m looking for inspiration.’

‘Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.’ – Pablo Picasso

Here’s the thing: writing is hard. You’re reaching into the mysterious parts of your soul, pulling out what you find and attempting to wrestle it onto a page. You’re pulling something fragile out into the open. Naturally, the body tries to put up defences.

‘The easiest thing to do on earth is not write.’ – William Goldman

Writing can be mentally and emotionally draining. It’s so much easier to check facebook, or binge watch a TV show, or do the dishes, or check our emails, or cook an elaborate dinner, or any of the other things we do to avoid actually sitting down and writing.

This procrastination can be a manifestation of many things: fear of getting it wrong; laziness; taking the easy road; an uncertainty about the work; embarrassment; worry about not living up to other people’s expectations…

For all of these, there’s one very simple cure:

Make the time to sit down and write.

An hour. Two hours. Three. It’s up to you, just as long as you go to your writing space and stay there. Don’t get up and dust the top of the kitchen cupboards. Don’t tweet. Leave the list of household chores somewhere where you can’t see it.

If nothing comes, write about how you can’t think of anything to write. Repeat this routine every day, or every couple of days, as often as you come. If you turn up to work, then eventually the inspiration will as well.

writing prompt - Katie Hale

TYPE TWO:

The Tricky Type

What makes Type One easy to cure is that the cure is physical. You get yourself into your writing space and something will eventually turn up. Type Two is so tricky because the cure isn’t physical. It’s a purely mental battle, and that’s much harder to fight.

This is the type of writers’ block I didn’t realise existed, until about a year ago. Because sometimes, it isn’t just laziness or a fear of creating the work that blocks us. Sometimes, there’s a much deeper problem.

I’m talking about things that go beyond the work itself. Big things. Things like grief for a loved one. Anxiety. Depression. A big upheaval. Some sort of earthquake that shakes the foundation of our lives.

Something like this isn’t always a block. Sometimes, it can draw the work out of us and turn the creativity into a therapeutic process. But often, this therapeutic creativity comes later. Initially, there’s a block.

This block can’t always be solved by just turning up to the writing station. Often, solving the root problem has to come first. There’s no easy way to do that. Anyone who has ever suffered from any form of mental health issue will know that it’s a complicated process – one that takes time and patience and a lot of self-acceptance.

And often, once the root problem is addressed, or at least accepted, the writing will start to flow again. (Of course, at this stage, you still need to turn up to the desk…)

Good luck, and happy writing!

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.

*

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:

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.