Reading the Signs

That was the summer we blatted the ants
with bits of kitchen roll, smudging
their miniature bodies between the countertop
and our thumbs. It didn’t rain for six long weeks
and in the spare room, a business of flies
crawled into the gaps around the windows
to feast on the wood’s protective coat.
A sparrow flung itself into the glass
of the front door. It lay broken on the step,
its wings and feet at wrong angles, till I shovelled it
into a polythene bag – though the grease spot
stayed on the window for weeks.
We slept in different rooms, agreed
that all these things, these signs, were unconnected.


‘Reading the Signs’ was first published in The Compass

The Raven Speaks

‘All the animals, birds, and fish will live in fear of you. They are all placed under your power.’
– Genesis 9:2

For a month or more, he kept us
in the dark, locked
in his mad tessellation of wood.

Through a slip of it, we could see
the lift and slump of horizon,
and on rougher days
shards of air forced themselves
through the gap.

When he took me
from the hull, led me up
and out towards the day…

to feel the chorus of sunlight on my feathers,
the freshness of salt
scouring from me the greyness of captivity…
when they unhooked my claw
from the metal ring, and made me soar –
is it any wonder I didn’t come back?

I found land: a rocky
dump of mud and drowned fish,
the single resilient
olive branch. It stank
fierce as the ship I’d left behind.

I saw her coming,
that lily-winged dove. Hid.
Watched her pinch that little spurt of green
in her petite, pampered beak,
and promptly nip it, dead.


‘The Raven Speaks’ was commended in York Literature Festival / YorkMix Poetry Competition 2016. It is also included in my pamphlet, Breaking the Surface (Flipped Eye, 2017).

Poetry has a very close relationship to sound. It’s one of the things that sets it apart from prose, which is often read internally; poetry changes so much when it’s performed out loud. With its long association with an oral tradition, with ballads and song, with rhythm, meter and rhyme, the very act of writing poetry becomes an act of engaging with sound.

‘Poetry begins in those situations where the voice has to be raised: the hawker has to make himself heard above the market hubbub, the knife-grinder has to call the cook out into the street, the storyteller has to address a whole village, the bard must command the admiration of the court. The voice has to be raised. And it is raised in rhythm.’ – James Fenton, An Introduction to English Poetry (London: Penguin Books, 2003)

I actually ran a school workshop about poetry and sound just the other week. I was working with my regular group of Yr 4 pupils at St Patrick’s School in Workington, where we looked at John Clare’s poem, ‘Pleasant Sounds’. We talked about Clare’s use of ‘sound words’ (such as ‘pattering’ and ‘whizzing’), and about how some of the sound words he used were unexpected, like ‘flirt’ and ‘halloos’. Then the children thought about a favourite place, and wrote about all the different sounds they could hear in that place.

Which brings me onto this month’s challenge:

Write about the next sound you hear.

It could be a large sound, or a very small one. Whatever it is, I want you to focus on it. Describe it in as much detail as you can.

Start by describing the sound itself – what are the best words for the sound you can hear? Is it loud or quiet? Does it invade your ears, or do you really have to strain to hear it? Is it continuous, or short and sharp like a puncture?

Then expand the picture out from there. What’s making the sound? Can you see it? What does it look like? Whatever’s making it: does it change as it makes the sound? How does it affect the other sounds around it? How does it affect you? Does it remind you of something else? Another time you heard it, perhaps, or something else that makes a similar noise?

The trick with this exercise is focus. Focus all your energy and attention on that one sound, and let the detail fill the words.

As always, I’d love to see the results. Good luck, and happy writing!

After a month of writing very little while travelling around Cambodia & Vietnam, May has been full on. Honestly, since landing at Manchester airport at the end of April, I don’t think I’ve stopped.

Finding time to write in London
Finding time to write in London

After the Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize’s award ceremony in Dublin, and the South Downs Poetry Festival weekend residential over the bank holiday weekend, May got into full swing with a couple of days hanging out on London’s Southbank and writing, as well as seeing ‘Consent’ at the National Theatre, and drinking wine with friends (always important).

From there, I headed up to Cambridge for the Jane Martin Poetry Prize award ceremony, held at Girton College. Judged this year by Grevel Lindop & Malcom Guite, the Jane Martin Poetry Prize is awarded annually to a poet under 30, for a group of up to four poems – and this year, I was lucky enough to win it. It was a really fun evening, with the award ceremony taking place in the old library, followed by a delicious formal hall dinner. I spent the night in the college, then headed home the next day.

Which was a good thing, because while I’ve been at home, there have been progressions with all three of my big current projects:

Poetry: This month I wrote a couple of new poems, but more importantly: I proofed my pamphlet. It was an odd (but satisfying) experience, seeing the printer’s proof arrive in my inbox – like spending years growing & nurturing a tree, then coming out of the house one day to find it suddenly in bloom. But that blossom will be turning into something even more substantial this week, as the pamphlet itself finally arrives, ready for the big launch on Friday. Very exciting!

Novel: A huge one this month, as I’ve finally finished the first draft of the novel! Which means that I actually got to the end, with no gaps in the middle which just say ‘write something here’. It may be messy, but it’s still a full complete draft. At that moment, when I plugged my laptop into the printer and pressed ‘print’, I was so excited I actually wriggled – like Christmas Eve when I was a child, and I couldn’t sleep for wriggling. Now, I just need to edit it. (I say ‘just’…) I have my first one-to-one with my wonderful editor on the Penguin Random House WriteNow scheme, Tom, in a couple of weeks, and after that I’ll have a better idea of how to move forward with the manuscript. But still: exciting times!

Musical: I’ve done very little actual work on the musical this month – and what I have done has only been in the past week, as we start to look at shaping this draft up into its ‘finished’ form, ready to workshop it with the cast next month. BUT that doesn’t mean nothing has been happening, because tickets for the musical (called The Inevitable Quiet of the Crash and co-written with composer Stephen Hyde) went on sale! The show runs 2nd – 26th August 2017, at the Edinburgh Fringe, and you can book your tickets nicely in advance here.

And that’s pretty much been my life this month! Lots of writing. Not a lot of sleep. Ah well. Maybe June will be a bit more relaxed…? (I doubt it.)

The month in pictures:

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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

I like to write in cafes. I’ll be honest: that’s largely because I have a fondness for cake, and scones, and hot chocolate with marshmallows. And because coffee can be a great way to wake up the writing bits of the brain.

But it’s also about the cafe as a creative space. Writing can be such a lonely pursuit that it can be easy to feel isolated. For me, cafes represent a half-way house between the solitary and the social. In a cafe, it’s possible to be alone and yet in the middle of a bustling crowd. The perfect set-up for people watching.

So that’s my task for this writing prompt:

Sit in a cafe & eat cake.

Ok, the cake bit is optional, but the real purpose of sitting in the cafe is to people watch. Pick somebody you don’t know – whether it’s a customer or a member of staff – and write about them. Write their portrait, write their fictional back story, write about where they might live, write about the conversation you overhear, write about yourself in relation to them. It’s up to you what you write, but here’s the catch: your piece of writing should be finished by the time you’ve finished your tea / coffee / hot chocolate with marshmallows, whipped cream & a flake.

And I know, ‘a poem is never finished, only abandoned.’ And you can always come back to it later. But for the purposes of this exercise, it’s all about forcing you to write, rather than sitting and looking at the blank page. And I always find that a time limit is one of the best ways to do that.

Good luck!

Oh, and if you’re in Cumbria, here are my top 5 Cumbrian cafes for writing in.

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.