Last night I went to see the fantastic Andrew McMillan perform at Poem & a Pint. He read from his multi-award-winning (make that multi-multi-award-winning) collection, Physical, and then tantalised us with material from his upcoming collection, Playtime.

Playtime doesn’t come out till next year, but in the meantime, here’s on of the poems I performed at one of the open mic slots last night. As you may have guessed, it’s titled after a Joni Mitchell song. It was shortlisted for the 2017 Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize and features in my pamphlet, Breaking the Surface (Flipped Eye, 2017):

You’re in My Blood like Holy Wine

The nights we came home drunk and every night,
we sat side by side, toes curled over the cliff
of the bed in your Oxford bedsit, and talked

about nothing. I know this, because it struck me
how precisely we controlled our breath,
how intricate each flex and shiver of skin

for words that no one cared about. We talked
about next door, the radio constant
through the brickwork, clutching at stations

before moving on. Sometimes, our arms
brushed and for a second, I spiralled
like smoke. There were always cigarettes

and the faint smell of apples, your burgundy
sweater, and the bristled curve of your throat.
There were dark thumbprints in the bowls

of old wine glasses, stacks of plates
like unopened letters, crumbs
sharp as insects littering the rug –

and all the words I didn’t know how to say
were crows, flapping their frantic wings
against the inside of my mouth.

I swallowed, and they clawed my stomach
raw and sick. I’ve tried to drown them
in spirits, thick and toxic as the dark,

drown them till they tasted of nothing
but iron and burnt toast, and my body
was a smudge of wings on a pebble beach.

I’ve tried to speak. Once, I twisted my fingers
in the duvet, as if there would be ripples
that could reach you: your solid, immovable legs.

You shut the blinds, switched on the desk lamp
and Joni Mitchell – how I could drink a case of you
and I would still be on my feet – but before the end

you cut the track to watch the trailer
for the new James Bond. You said, I know
how you feel about me, and I believed you.

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Remember the Church of the Assumption
of Our Lady in Mosta? Where the bomb
that plummeted through the roof in 1942

into the middle of a morning mass
without exploding was still on display,
and the little card proclaimed this a miracle

in several languages. Remember
how we watched it for almost twenty minutes,
how its silence filled the room

till we imagined we could hear it ticking:
a gunmetal heart; the weight of a hammer
raised above a head or bell

about to be struck; the stretched skin
of a drum anticipating thunder.
Or maybe it was just our own blood

beating against our ears like fists
against a door. Remember how I said, I wish
it would do something drastic, I wish it would explode?

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Happy November!

If we weren’t certain before, then I think it’s now safe to say that winter is finally here. It’s dark in the early evening, and I’m scraping frost off the car every morning.

All of which makes me think of time.

Time is something that is key to writing. After all, words exist within time. Meter measures out a pace and governs the passage of time within a poem. We’re taught early on that stories have a beginning, middle and end (whether or not they are told in that order), and these also serve to govern the time of the story.

So this month, I want to create a time-related prompt. Specifically, this prompt is related to the before-ness of time.

I want you to write about the moment before something happens.

It could be something joyous. It could be something tragic, something dramatic, something that will leave the world reeling. Perhaps a house fire. Perhaps the moment before a child falls off a cliff, or the split second before a team scores a touchdown. Maybe the moment before Neil Armstrong’s boot touches the surface of the moon, or the second before impact when the meteorite wipes out the dinosaurs.

Whatever it is, make it something big. Something significant – either to the world at large, or to the world of a single character.

But here’s the catch: I don’t want you to describe the event. You can mention it, if you like, to add weight and context to your piece. But make the focus of your writing the moment before. When everything weighs in the balance. When the scales could tip in either direction and everything echoes through possibility. When the world is still unchanged.

Describe it in detail. Image a freeze-frame, in that one second before the event. Once you’ve frozen the frame, then press play, but in slow motion. Picture the build-up to the big event happening frame by frame. Notice everything. Is there a shadow of foreboding? Maybe, maybe not. The weight of the piece comes from knowing what’s about to happen next.

Good luck, and happy writing!

Well, it’s officially autumn. The shops are filled with decorations for several different holidays at once, and I’m not sure if I should be preparing for Christmas, Halloween, Bonfire Night or all three. Unusually for me, though, the writing has really only been focussed on one project this month.

My writing life - Katie Hale

With a deadline of 31st October, I’ve been slogging away at the latest draft of the novel.

Coming from writing poetry, editing a novel has proved to be a wholly different experience. With poetry, I find the drafting process challanging, and the editing process significantly easier. After all, the actual idea is already on paper – all that’s left to do is shape it into its best form. And really that’s a process a bit like painting, as most of the time you can see the whole poem on the page and work with it either as a complete entity, or zoom in on a particular word or phrase. With a novel, it just feels so big, it’s impossible to hold it all in my head at once.

So that’s been the big focus this month.

Of course, as with any job in the arts, it isn’t all about the actual writing. This month I’ve also read at Borderlines Festival, as well as having a couple of interviews, which is always interesting. I’ve been in the November edition of Cumbria Life, and spoken to Amy Lord, who blogs at Ten Penny Dreams. You can read Amy’s blog post here: WriteNow: An Interview with Author and Poet Katie Hale

I’ve also been to a few poetry workshops this month, which has had me desperate to get back to writing poetry. Working on just a single project is wonderful in some ways, as it allows such in-depth focus. But at the same time, it reminds me that I don’t want to limit myself to one form of writing. It’s like an itch. Here’s hoping November will be filled with creative variety!

The month in books:

Not many books this month, unfortunately. That is, unless you count re-reading my own manuscript several billion times.

  • The End We Start From, by Megan Hunter
  • Grown Up Poetry Needs To Leave Me Alone, by Carly Brown
  • Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh
  • 40 Sonnets, by Don Paterson

The month in pictures:

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October is the month of Halloween, so for this month’s prompt I’m suggesting a little bit of necromancy.

One of the things that always fascinates me about poetry (and about writing in general) is the way it is always a balance between the known and unknown, the explained and the imagined, the writing and the reading. How much is the writer telling us, and how much do we have to work out for ourselves? How much is recognisable and familiar, and how much is completely new to us? A piece of writing where we recognise nothing may be a great feat of imagination, but it requires too big an ask of the reader. On the flip side, a piece of writing where everything is so familiar that there’s nothing to surprise us may be easy to understand, but it does little to retain our interest. Writing, like so many forms of creativity, is about balance.

One way to achieve this balance is to take something recognisable and give it a new angle. Set a familiar story in a new location. Pick up a person we all know and drop them in a completely alien environment. Put Cinderella on a Blackpool hen party. Sleeping Beauty in a coma in a hospital ward. Hansel & Gretel in a refugee camp.

This is something Carol Ann Duffy does in a number of poems in The World’s Wife, giving stories and myths and historical figures a contemporary setting. In his newest collection, The Unaccompanied, Simon Armitage sets an episode from The Odyssey in Poundland.

So that’s my challenge for this month:

Take a figure from history, or a story, or a myth, and put them somewhere in today’s world.

How do they react to what’s around them? You could write the poem with your character confused by modern technological developments, as they probably would be if they’d been time-travelled across the years. Or you could keep the character the same, but put them in the modern world as though it’s their natural habitat. What new light does this process shed on the character? What new light does it shed on the modern setting?

Good luck, and happy writing.

For some reason, I thought things would quieten down once the Fringe was over. I thought September would be a fairly easy month, where I could focus on redrafting the novel without much distraction.

Wrong, as it turns out – though in the best possible sense.

To begin with there was a month’s worth of admin & emails to catch up with, where I’d spent the whole of August concentrating solely on the Fringe. Turns out that coming home to several hundred emails in your inbox does actually take some time to deal with – and catching up on sleep can be even trickier to fit in. But at least once that was all done, September could really get underway.

Poetry Cairn, Lakes Alive Festival

I’ve had a couple of performances this month, the first of which was Lakes Alive Festival in Kendal. My performance took place in a giant teepee in the afternoon, but in the morning I created a Poetry Cairn. Over the course of a morning, I invited passers-by to talk to me about poetry. What does poetry mean to you? People were then encouraged to write their answer on a stone and add it to the cairn, so that by the end of the morning, we had built a cultural landscape marker of our own, marking people’s relationships to poetry.

I was also thrilled to be part of a second festival this month, hosting an Adult Youth Club event at Rheged, as part of Eden Arts’ C-Art Festival. Based on the idea that you’re never too old to have fun, the event featured music from Ekobirds and poetry from the fantastic Loud Poets collective, as well as a quiz, and tables strewn with crayons & modelling clay.

Katie Hale. Photo - Tom Lloydphoto: Tom Lloyd

And continuing on the poetry theme, this month also brought National Poetry Day. This year for National Poetry Day, BBC Local Radio commissioned 12 poets (one from each region) to write a poem based on a local dialect word. The project was called #FreeTheWord, and was run in partnership with the Oxford English Dictionary.

I was selected to represent Cumbria in the project, and wrote a poem based on the verb ‘to twine’ (meaning ‘to moan’ or ‘to complain). The poem is called ‘Ode to Twining’ and you can read it and watch the video here.

Click here to hear the poems from the other BBC regions.

But September has also been a month of fiction. Despite everything else, I’ve also been working on my novel, which is now at the redrafting stage. I think I expected this stage to be easier than writing the first draft. After all, at least I wouldn’t be confronted with the monolithic blank page. But actually I think it’s harder. There’s more pressure when you’re redrafting. Suddenly it starts to matter whether it’s ‘good enough’, whereas before it was just about building up the word count and getting the bones of the story down on the page. Suddenly, I’m having to try to hold the whole novel in my head at once.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t enjoyable – which is a good thing, as I was worried I’d be less fired up by the manuscript once I’d written how the story ends. Hopefully, this means I’m doing something right. Penguin Random House seem to think so, so that’s encouraging!

Penguin Random House: WriteNowLive Newcastle

And speaking of PRH… Last weekend I was invited over to Newcastle, to speak at the next round of WriteNow Live insight days. This is part of the shortlisting process of the second year of WriteNow, and as one of the first year’s mentored writers, PRH asked me to go and talk about my experience of the project so far, and the impact it’s had on me. Mainly, I talked about how being accepted on the scheme, and having someone champion my work, has boosted my confidence, and help me overcome those internal barriers to writing the manuscript in the first place. You can read the whole speech here, if you fancy.

Then suddenly September is over, October has arrived, and it’s well and truly autumn. Guess I’ll just have to spend those chilly autumn days snuggled up inside & working on my manuscript!

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The month in books:

It hasn’t been a bad month for reading, although as always, I wish I could carve out more time for it. Especially now the nights are drawing in; there’s nothing better than curling up by the fire with a mug of hot chocolate and a good book.

  • Urban Myths and Legends (Emma Press anthology)
  • Often I Am Happy, by Jens Christian Grøndahl
  • Russian Roulette, by Anthony Horowitz
  • Good Bones, by Margaret Atwood
  • Imaginary Friends, by Philip Pullman
  • Room, by Emma Donoghue
  • The Power, by Naomi Alderman
  • The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage

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The month in pictures:

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HAPPY NATIONAL POETRY DAY!

For this year’s National Poetry Day, I was commissioned by BBC Local Radio to write a poem as part of the #FreeTheWord project. The project took 12 regional words chosen by listeners, and asked 12 poets to write a poem based on their region’s word. I was the poet from Cumbria, and my word was ‘twining’ (moaning / complaining etc).

You can watch the poem here:

Ode to Twining

The week summer slammed the door so hard the valley
rumbled from its leaving, you couldn’t move for moaning.

Not fat complaints dropping powerless from lips,
or torrents gossiping and coarse – up here,
our words are leaner, tighter… Here we twine,

unwinding our moans like wool
festooned between us. When the weather
rocked the windows and swept away the bins,
we twined till twining became
entwining, till we had twilled ourselves
in the warp and weft of our words –

the way we were that other winter, when water
rose through the town and the roads were a maze,
when the rain was a blank wall
wetting our backs and the wind was a wild thing,

when our words unravelled and all we could do was follow them
like string – till together our twinings wound thicker,
were rope, and we bound ourselves together like love
as the floodwater billowed and swept –
and we stood fast in our twining and we waited, and we won.

Yesterday, I was invited to Penguin Random House’s WriteNow Live event in Newcastle, to talk to 50 of this year’s selected writers about my experience of the mentoring scheme, and what it’s done for me. So today, I thought I’d share the talk I gave:

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IMG_4519Penguin Random House: WriteNowLive Newcastle, Katie Hale

Back in February, I was sitting in a room in Manchester on my own WriteNow insight day. Like all of you, I was there because I felt there were barriers to seeing my work in print.

Some of the barriers we face are external. I recently went to see a friend’s performance at the Fringe. It was a one woman spoken word show about coming out, set against the history of the secret queer language, Polari. At the end, an audience member (it may or may not be relevant that he was a middle-aged white male) came up to her and said, ‘It’s good, but it’d be better if you took out the gay bits.’

Again and again, we as writers come face to face with this bizarre attitude that straight white men write stories that are universal, but if you’re a ‘marginalised’ writer, you’re only writing for other people within your own group. These are the kinds of trends in publishing, and the external barriers, that WriteNow is working to overcome, and probably the reason that a lot of us are here today.

But we also face internal barriers, and I’d like to talk a bit about mine.

I nearly didn’t apply to WriteNow. I’d had an idea for a novel in my head for a while, but never had the confidence to do anything about it. I wrote poetry, not fiction. I had this notion that writing prose as well would be somehow wrong – like I’d be jumping outside this little box I’d put myself in, and that wasn’t allowed. I also wasn’t sure it’d be any good.

The night before the deadline, I forced myself to sit down and write the opening section of my novel. The next day, I ended up going to a McDonalds to use the wifi, so that I could submit my application just an hour or two before it was due – not because I was disorganised, but because I didn’t have confidence in my own work even to submit it.

But here’s the thing: it wasn’t just my work I didn’t have confidence in – it was myself. So I put all kinds of barriers in my own way, and came up with all kinds of reasons not to apply: I was a poet, not a novelist. I didn’t have what it took to write a longer piece of work. I didn’t know enough about plot, or character, or dialogue. I wasn’t right for the WriteNow programme. I wasn’t writing anything shocking or revelatory about marginalised subcultures. I didn’t ‘look’ gay.

Skip to a few months later, and I was sitting in a room in Manchester with forty-nine other nervous writers. Somehow, miraculously, I’d made it this far, which meant that somebody at least thought my writing wasn’t terrible – although being a writer, I do have an overactive imagination, and there was a small part of my brain that was cooking up all kinds of administrative errors that meant I’d been invited to the insight day by accident. Not true, obviously. Nobody is here by accident – you’re here because you’ve worked hard for it.

I didn’t eat lunch on my insight day – I was too nervous about my one-to-one, which meant I went into it feeling a bit light-headed. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried, because this was when I first met Tom Avery – who I’m going to name-drop because I think he deserves to be named. In that first meeting, Tom gave me such on-point constructive feedback on my work, that it felt right the moment he said it. Half a year on, Tom has given me feedback on the first draft of my manuscript, and I’m rewriting it ready for our next meeting in November. He’s given me new insight into the story I’m telling, but he’s also given me confidence in my novel. It isn’t just confidence that I can write, it’s confidence that I should write.

Because ultimately, WriteNow is about stories. It isn’t about overcoming diversity in some box-ticking photo-opp way. Penguin Random House is a business, not a charity – and it’s a business that relies on individual voices. Our voices. You guys are all here because of your story. You’re here because you can write.

I guess WriteNow has been like school, in a way. There are the things it sets out to teach us, like what publishers mean by certain terms, and how the process of finding an agent works. Then there’s the hidden curriculum: the things you learn along the way.

So I’d like to finish this talk by sharing some of the things I’ve learned from that hidden curriculum, the little pieces of advice I’ve picked up along the way, and I hope they’re useful to you, too.

  1. Eat lunch today. Editors are not scary people – they’re just people with a passion for stories and good writing, and you’re all here because you’re good writers.
  2. If you have a bio that says you’re an ‘aspiring writer’, take out the word ‘aspiring’. If you’re here today, then you’re already a writer.
  3. Never wait till you ‘know enough’ to write a book. I’ve spoken to enough published writers who still don’t feel they ‘know enough’, and the best way to learn is by practising.
  4. Make friends. Make friends in writing groups at home. Make friends with other people here. These guys are your colleagues, not your competition.
  5. Be loud. Don’t sit in a corner apologising for your manuscript. And if you don’t feel confident, that’s ok, because pretend confidence can be just as effective as the real thing.
  6. Have fun. Writing is a long and lonely process. Editing is even tougher. When the grind of the work is getting you down, remember that drive that made you pick up a pen or open your laptop in the first place.
  7. And last but not least, I want to share a piece of encouragement we give each other on our WriteNow mentees Whatsapp group: Deep breath. Keep writing. You’ve got this.

Penguin Random House: WriteNowLive Newcastle

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