Poetry can be about anything. In many ways, that’s a huge advantage. It gives you freedom to explore any subject that interests you, and to view it through whatever frame seems appropriate. As I like to tell children in my schools workshops, there are no rules in poetry.
But all those options can be a little bit daunting. You know that feeling when you’re looking at a menu and there’s too much to choose from, it’s overwhelming, and suddenly you don’t want to eat anything at all? Sometimes I feel a bit like that about poetry.
So I thought I’d create a prompt that restricts that slightly.
Your goal? To write about something blue.
It can be anything you like – big, small, bright blue, sky blue, azure, navy… Maybe a poem about a shallow coral sea, or the depths of the Pacific. Perhaps the sky on a summer day, or a swimming pool in a fancy hotel. Or maybe it’s a smaller object: a blue bottle, a favourite pair of denim dungarees, bathroom tiles. Perhaps you want to write about blueness in the figurative sense, about being blue, or playing the blues.
Whatever you choose, start with the object and its blueness. Continue writing from there, and see where the poem takes you.
As always, I’d love to see anything you come up with.
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.
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:
Facebook Live at StAnza
Tannahill International Poetry Prize 2017
St Andrews in the mist
Forth Rail Bridge
St Andrews: West Sands
St Andrews: West Sands
StAnza blog post writing
The Byre Theatre: StAnza 2017
Writing time at Cakes & Ale cafe
John Agard: StAnza 2017
Running a primary school workshop on magic & imagination
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.
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.
January always feels like an odd month to me. It seems to take ages to get going, and then before you know it, it’s almost over. Cue a frantic rush to get up to date on all the things I should have been doing at the start of the month. Oops.
That aside, January is always a month of beginnings. It’s a month of testing myself, to see how closely I can stick to my newly made resolutions. So far, it’s been a bit of a mix.
I haven’t got particularly far with my 100 rejections – although I did send some poems out the other day, so maybe there’ll be some on their way shortly.
I’ve read 4 books, so I guess I’m kind on track to my 50 by the end of the year.
So far, I’m keeping up with my weekly blog posts, so that’s a big tick on the resolutions list.
As for the novella, I’m now officially over half way through the first draft of this, so this one is looking fairly promising.
But how has it gone apart from that?
Mostly, I’ve been trying to get back into some sort of routine. Before Christmas, I had about 3 weeks of being in this fantastic routine that was probably one of the most productive of my life: get up before 7am, write all morning, sometimes go for a walk / run, do admin in the afternoon, relax / read / make Christmas decorations in the evenings. Then Christmas happened and that sort of went by the wayside. Now, I’m getting into a kind of routine, which isn’t really the one I want. It seems to be: get up late, mooch around trying to write, fail, read a book to pass the time, finally manage to write something that’s halfway decent by about dinner time, do some frantic admin, clamber into bed at around 1am.
Luckily, I’ve spent the past week with Stephen, working on the rewrites of our musical – and there’s nothing like another person to make you get your act together and get working, so it’s been a productive week. Keeping my fingers crossed that that productivity follows me into February.
In other news:
I had a great weekend in London with the lovely Elizabeth Mann, at the T S Eliot readings (and spending far too much time & money in the city’s various bookshops). It was such an inspiring occasion – and a huge congratulations to Jacob Polley on his win!
January’s Word Mess open mic night was one of the busiest we’ve had, with a fantastic variety of readers. (The next one will be on Tuesday 28th February.)
I started 2 new blog series: a monthly writing prompt, starting with a prompt about beginnings; and Face to Face, series of short conversations I’ll be having every month, talking to interesting people about the things that interest them. So far, so good! 🙂
I’ve started my schools workshops again. One of my personal favourites was looking at riddles & kennings with my Yr 4s at St Patrick’s Primary in Workington. Their special topic is currently the arctic, so we wrote some arctic-themed riddles. Any guesses…?
I am a ship-sinker.
I am a crack-maker.
I am a wave-breaker.
What am I?
I am a birth-giver.
I am a snow-hunter.
I am a seal-eater.
I am a den-sleeper.
What am I?
I am a cookie-eater.
I am a toy-maker.
I am a milk-drinker.
I am a sleigh-driver.
I am a chimney-climber.
I am an elf-checker.
I am a beard-grower.
What am I?
Looking forward to going back there this month to work more on description & close observation.
THE MONTH IN BOOKS:
All We Shall Know, by Donal Ryan
The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
Anthology of the Sea (Emma Press)
Reasons to Stay Alive, by Matt Haig
Currently reading: The Art of Travel, by Alain de Botton, and Human Acts, by Han Kang
THE MONTH IN PICTURES:
London: lots & lots of bookshops
Ghost signs in Manchester
Sheep in Cumbria
The Handmaid’s Tale: a long overdue read
View from the writing desk in Manchester: not a bad place to write a musical
London: British Museum
Stephen busy composing
WordMess open mic night – all welcome!
Reading at WordMess open mic night (thanks to Rob Fraser for the photo)
Going for a productive walk in the Eden Valley
Globe Theatre: trip to London to the T S Eliot Award reading
Ever notice how most of our interaction is now via phone, or messenger, or email, or skype? At least, it sometimes seems that way for me.
Face to Face is a new series of short conversations I’ll be having every month, talking to interesting people about the things that interest them. We’ll be chatting over cups of tea & pieces of cake, in my kitchen or wherever there’s a chance to stop and swap thoughts.
Phones down. Screens closed. Talking face to face.
S1 E1: In this first episode, I chat to Supal Desai about blogging and the creative process of writing a blog post.
Supal is the founder of a business risk consultancy based in London and the blogger behind the travel lifestyle blog, chevrons & éclairs. Her ideal Sunday would find her starting the morning in bed with a good book, newspaper or a cuddle, and then making brunch alongside music and endless cups of coffee. Her love for culture, art and history has taken her to the most exotic parts of the world, where she uses that opportunity to curate content that tells a story through fashion and food editorials.
So where do I come in?
I first met Supal in my friend’s kitchen, during our Masters year at St Andrews. She was cooking up something delicious-looking, and I was trying to convince her that haggis were little creatures that lived in the mountains.
I’ve never been very good at new year’s resolutions. Or rather, I think I’m good at them in the same way that everyone else is good at them: for about 3 weeks in January, and then letting them fall by the wayside for the rest of the year.
But this year, I’m making a number of them, and I’m determined to still remember what they were this time next year. Even more, I’m determined to achieve them, so that next year I have to come up with some new ones.
If 2016 has been the year of celebrity deaths & surprise election results, then I’m intending to make 2017 the year of writing-in-numbers (as distinct from writing-by-numbers, which is not to be encouraged).
This is the one resolution that I actually don’t mind whether I achieve it or not. The idea is that aiming for rejections is less daunting than aiming for acceptances, so you’re more likely to bite the bullet and submit in the first place.
And 100 is such a big number that it forces you to think outside the box and submit to opportunities that you wouldn’t normally consider inside your comfort zone. Given that this is exactly how I got my place on Penguin’s WriteNow insight day in Manchester for February 2017, it’s something I already believe in: apply for opportunities, as you never know where that opportunity may lead.
(Obviously, if I somehow miraculously achieve 100 acceptances instead of 100 rejections, I think I’ll get over the fact that I didn’t tick off the resolution itself.)
RESOLUTION NUMBER 2:
As always, I’m aiming to read 50 books in 2017.
This is always my resolution (at roughly one a week, I see no reason why I shouldn’t be able to achieve this). In 2016 I read 57 books, and I’d quite like to read more this coming year. After all, reading is the key to writing.
As for what I’ll be reading, I already have a few books lined up – thanks in part to a late December splurge at the New Hedgehog Bookshop in Penrith. And then I’d like to read some of the poetry & fiction that’s been waiting patiently on my shelves, as well as building a bigger library of contemporary plays. And with StAnza in March and Kendal Poetry Festival in June, I’m pretty sure there’ll be plenty of new poetry to tempt me.
RESOLUTION NUMBER 3:
To write 50 blog posts for this blog.
Really, I’m going for one a week, but 50 is a nicer number than 52, and it gives me a little bit of wiggle room.
Some of these will be writing updates, some will be actualy pieces of writing (from me and hopefully also from some of my schools workshops), and some will probably just be a bit of fun.
I’m also planning to post a monthly writing prompt, on the first Sunday of every month. When I was running my young writers’ group, I used to email the young writers a prompt every week – so I thought I’d continue the tradition, but on a slightly less frequent basis. After all, I’m not Jo Bell.
RESOLUTION NUMBER 4:
To take 1 show to the Fringe.
But more on that in the new year, hopefully. Spoilers!
RESOLUTION NUMBER 5:
To finish at least 1 draft of the novella.
1 draft. 1 very very rough and probably unfit-for-human-consumption draft.
Actually, I’m hoping to have this completed by the end of February, so really there’s no reason not to complete several drafts of it in the months that follow. At least, that’s the plan. But other things always crop up – and yes, Stephen, if you’re reading this, don’t worry: I will also be working on the rewrite of Yesterday during this time. Just hoping that old stereotype about women being good at multi-tasking proves to be true!
So there are my 5 new year’s resolutions for 2017.
2016 has felt a lot like finding my feet as a full-time writer. I’m hoping that 2017 is when I’ll really start to run.
A fortnight of updates this week – which is my way of skirting round the issue of not posting last weekend. Largely becauuse of the hearty poetry overdose mentioned above.
The fortnight in numbers:
1 completed draft of a play script
1 funding application submitted
1 review written for Words by the Water
2 festivals (StAnza Poetry Festival & Words by the Water)
3 strolls along the St Andrews sea front
4 bookshops visited (including a beautiful new one in St Andrews)
5 prompts written for my young writers
6 books read / partly read
8 trips to various St Andrews cafes
9 teddy bears donated for an upcoming project
16 new books acquired (oops!)
35 (ish) events worked on / attended
Countless coffees / teas / chai lattes drunk
Hence only 1 blog post.
Over the past two weeks, I’ve attended two festivals. I volunteered at StAnza Poetry Festival (St Andrews, Fife), and then received a young person’s bursary to attend Words by the Water in Keswick. (I’m going to miss being a ‘young person’ once I turn 26. Goodbye rail discounts and cheap theatre tickets. Hello adulthood.)
StAnza was a wonderful whirlwind of poetry. I counted up from the brochure, and I think I attended and / or worked on around 25 poetry events over 5 days. Poets from Jo Bell, to Don Patterson, to Lemn Sissay, to Sean O’Brien, to Matthew Sweeney, to Em Strang, to Fiona Benson… The list goes on and on.
Words by the Water was slightly less hectic: only 10 events, and I was only attending those, rather than working on them. I was also lucky enough at Words by the Water that one of my bursary tickets was for James Rebanks’ talk, which was completely packed. I think every single seat in the house was taken – which is around 500 seats. (I wrote a review of this event, as part of my bursary agreement. Hoping it should be on the Words by the Water website in the not-too-distant future.)
We also had a film showing at Penrith Old Fire Station this week: This Changes Everything, followed by a discussion about climate change (which got quite heated, ironically).
Other highlights of the fortnight? I completed a draft and a redraft of my play! I also discovered a lovely new bookshop in St Andrews, where there are sliding ladders to reach the top shelves and they give you a cup of tea while you’re browsing.
The week(s) in books:
Joshua Levine, Forgotten Voices of the Blitz and the Battle for Brittain
Joshua Levine, The Secret History of the Blitz
Caroline Moorhead, Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France
James Rebanks, The Shepherd’s Life
David Hare, Amy’s View
[currently reading:] Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin
An unusual amount of non-fiction recently. Partly because I’ve rediscovered the joys of research (seriously: finding stuff out can be so much fun!) and partly because I’ve been wanting to read James Rebanks’ book for ages, and it’s just come out in paperback (much more affordable than hardback)!
I was also lucky enough to see David Hare speak at Words by the Water, so raided a second-hand bookshop any came out with Amy’s View – now signed by the author.
As for The Blind Assassin: it’s been on my bookshelf for years, so I thought it was high time I actually read it. Only on about page 200, but so far hugely enjoying it.
The week(s) in pictures:
Perfect place to sit with a good book
East Sands, St Andrews
St Andrews harbour
St Andrews harbour
Editing a play script with an ultimate hot chocolate: Bibi’s Cafe, St Andrews
Gale Burns: StAnza 2016
East Sands beach, St Andrews
St Andrews pier
Harry Man talking poetry with some flowers: StAnza 2016
Penrith Castle: view from the station
St Andrews: view towards West Sands beach
St Andrews cathedral
Bear count now at 11! (Collecting bears for an upcoming arts project)
East Sands beach, St Andrews
St Andrews Castle
London Young Poet Laureates reading – StAnza 2016
Clive Birnie poetry: StAnza 2016
Shells & beach pebbles: StAnza accommodation
East Sands beach, St Andrews
Reading at StAnza 2016 open mic
Hashtag Poetry by Clive Birnie: StAnza 2016
Writing on the train to StAnza: view from the ‘office’
Waiting room at Penrith Station, with a view of the castle through the window
Jo Shapcott at StAnza 2016 (blurry photo snapped from backstage)
Crossing the Forth Rail Bridge
Hashtag Poetry by Clive Birnie: StAnza 2016
East Sands beach, St Andrews
East Sands beach, St Andrews
Reading at StAnza 2016 open mic
Sliding ladders in Topping’s Bookshop, St Andrews
bpNicol poem at StAnza 2016: Poetry Breakfast
Crossing the Firth of Forth on the train
St Andrews: West Sands beach
Creating Hashtag Poetry at StAnza 2016
Finding a Withnail & I quote in St Andrews
East Sands beach, St Andrews
The #derangedpoetess hashtag made it to StAnza!
St Andrews castle: sunset
Watching surfers on East Sands, St Andrews
When you drop your phone in the sand and it decides that means ‘take a photo’
Posting a day later than usual this week, due to a slightly hectic Sunday. (For ‘hectic’, read: writing a scene of a play, completing two funding applications and working on the bar at Box of Tricks’ Theatre Company’s show, Chip Shop Chips.)
Which pretty much sums up the whole week, really. In the best possible way.
As well as the Sunday madness mentioned above, this week has seen: a meeting in Kendal for some work I’m doing with Curious Minds (through New Writing Cumbria) – followed by a chai latte at one of my favourite Kendal Coffee shops, Brew Brothers; a comedy night at Penrith Old Fire Station to raise money for Cumbria Flood Appeal, ft. Rory Bremner, Justin Moorhouse, Fred MacAulay and Wendy Wason; a trip to Penrith’s independent cinema to see the NT Live broadcast of the National Theatre’s As You Like It; a very successful meeting at Clifton Primary School to talk about Arts Award; a trip to Carlisle to visit Prism Arts’ Creative Arts & Conversation group; cooking this week’s communal lunch at Eden Arts; writing a couple of new scenes of a play; and another funding application.
And you know what it’s made me realise? That I don’t do enough.
No, I don’t mean that in terms of work. In terms of work, I don’t really stop. This is because I’ve spent several years cramming all of my writing and my freelance work into my spare time. So now, having freed up a lot more time for writing and freelance work, I should have lots more spare time. All that time that used to be writing time should now be free.
But there’s a problem: I no longer know how to spend free time.
I know that sounds stupid. But seriously: I had a couple of hours the other day and I seriously couldn’t work out what to do with them. It’s like I’ve forgotten what to do with time that isn’t spent reading or writing.
So that’s one of my targets: to reclaim my free time. More particularly, to reclaim my weekends. (Getting out of bed on a Monday morning is so much harder when you’ve just spent the whole of Sunday working flat out.)
I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do with this free time that I’m determined to make. Something non-word-based. Maybe something outdoors-based? I think I’d like to get back into photography. And maybe do more crafting as well – something I’ve done very little of so far in 2016.
But something that doesn’t let me suffer from creative burnout.
Watch this space!
The week in pictures:
Justn Moorhouse at Penrith Old Fire Station
Fred MacAulay at Penrith Old Fire Station
‘Chip Shop Chips’: production by Box of Tricks Theatre Company in Shap Village Hall with Highilights Rural Touring network
Wendy Wason at Penrith Old Fire Station
Rory Bremner performing at Penrith Old Fire Station
Sound check at Penrith Old Fire Station before Cumbria Flood Appeal comedy night
My turn to cook the communal lunch at Eden Arts this week
Winter Droving lanterns outside Eden Arts, Penrith Old Fire Station
Rory Bremner at Penrith Old Fire Station
The last day of super long hair…. (much shorter now)
You know those weeks where you think you’ll take it easy and focus on one thing, then by the end of it, you’ve created two new arts projects, drafted three new poems, written 25% of a play, read four books, kept up to date with all your admin, and somehow managed to find time for a bit of a social life as well?
Well this week has been one of those.
The ‘one thing’ I was planning to focus on was the play, so actually 25% is slightly (though only slighlty) under what I wanted to write of it this week.
But, as seems to be my new norm, I’ve been slightly distracted by the poems clamouring for space in my head. I tried (not entirely successfully) to save up the poetic energy till yesterday – when I took part in Kim Moore‘s Barrow Poetry Workshop. As always, I came away from the workshop with something that I want to work on. Poetic energies = successfully channelled.
As for my other artistic energies?
As I was driving home from a busy day at Eden Arts on Tuesday, I started thinking how it was over 2 years since I’d done any guerrilla poetry style projects (the last one being Beneath The Boughs at Lowther Castle in 2013), and how I should probably think about doing another one in the next year or so. By the time I pulled into my drive, I had fully planned not one, but two, new arts projects. By the time I’d made and drunk a cup of tea, I’d ordered all the materials for one of them.
Project 2 is still under wraps for now (though if you have an unloved teddy bear you want to donate to it, drop me a line), but I launched the first project today:
While someone else emailed me via my website: ‘With my 3 year old daughter and locked my keys in the car.. your little plaster pack brightened up my day.. and the sweets kept my daughter entertained until the spare set got to me about 40 minutes later. So thank you.’
So far a success! Definitely more Poetry Plaster Packs to follow…
In other news, the Cumbrian weather finally feels like it’s turned (though I’ll say that cautiously, because I don’t want to jinx it). At least, it’s currently snowing, which makes a change from rain, and we’ve had a couple of sunny days, which have meant I’ve been able to go for little strolls along the lanes whenever I’m struggling with a piece of writing: something that never fails to help me find a solution.
The week in books:
Duncan MacMillan, Lungs
Nick Payne, Constellations
Zinne Harris, How to Hold Your Breath
Ariel Dorfman, Death and the Maiden
A week of theatre this week, in an attempt to keep myself in the playwriting zone. Death and the Maiden has been sitting on my bookshelf for sometime, just waiting to be read, so I figured it was probably about time to give it a whirl. Definitely a good decision to read it.
The other three are more recent plays, and are the three that I (perhaps rather extravagantly) bought last week at the National Theatre bookshop. But money spent on books is never a bad thing, and these three were all such great plays that I’m not sorry at all. How to Hold Your Breath is particularly one that stayed with me; after I read it on Tuesday night, I had a really unproductive morning on Wednesday, as I just couldn’t stop thinking about it! Definitely the mark of a good play.
The week in pictures:
A walk along a country lane never fails to help with my writing
New (old) noticeboard at Penrith Old Fire Station
New stencilled sign at the Eden Arts Office, Penrith Old Fire Station
Country walks in the Eden Valley
Walks in the Eden Valley, Cumbria
Valentine’s Day with my oldest friend
Brief stop in Ulverston on the way back from a poetry workshop with Kim Moore
The newly decorated foyer at Eden Arts, Penrith
‘Please touch the artworks’: on the wall in the new Mess at Eden Arts Penrith Old Fire Station
Word Mess: an Eden Arts / New Writing Cumbria wordy open mic night in Penrith, for poetry, spoken word, prose, at Penrith Old Fire Station
Unloved teddy bears wanted!
Poetry Plaster Pack – a guerrilla poetry project
View across the Eden Valley towards the Lake District
It only feels like a day ago that I was writing last weekend’s blog post, and yet, it also feels like months ago… One of the sure signs of a busy week.
Busy, yes, but also satisfying, hugely enjoyable, and out of the ordinary. In fact, I’m beginning to think that this new life doesn’t have an ‘ordinary’ at all…
It’s been quite exciting admin-wise. During my day a week at Eden Arts, we set up and organised a monthly wordy open mic night, Word Mess, which will start in March. I’ve also been handing out leaflets and posters for the Three Inch Fools’ Easter Shakespeare workshops.
Aside from that, it’s been almost a direct split between writing and relaxation.
I spent a couple of days in London, staying with the lovely Supal for a much-needed catch-up and a wander round the capital. We spent a good deal of time in independent book and coffee shops – including the delightful Primrose Hill Books, where I impulse bought a book called The Penguin Lessons (about a teacher at an Argentinian boarding school who rescues a penguin from an oil spill and takes it to live on his terrace at the school). Because let’s face it: who can resist a book about a penguin…? Certainly not me!
I also finally made it to the Attendant Cafe. Attendant is an underground cafe, created in an old public toilet. I’d heard about it ages ago on a couple of travel blogs, and couldn’t wait to visit for myself. (I have a bit of an obsession with toilets; when I was travel blogging I used to publish a ‘Loo witha View’ series, of unusually beautiful views from toilets from my travels). Fittingly, then, this trip to Attendant also doubled up as a chance to chat about blogging and travelling with Supal, who runs chevrons & eclairs.
But London wasn’t all coffee and sightseeing. I also spent some time sitting in one of the work spaces in the National Theatre, via spending a little more money than intended at the National Theatre Bookshop. As you may guess from this week’s reading list (below), I’m currently in playwriting mode. I couldn’t think of a better place to work on a play than in a quiet corner of the National Theatre itself.
Back up north, I spent a day at a poetry workshop at Tullie House Museum & Art Gallery. Tullie House are currently hosting the National Portrait Gallery’s Picture the Poet exhibition. As part of the exhibition’s outreach programme, they’re working with Apples & Snakes to run poetry workshops (leading to a showcase) for groups around Cumbria. One of these groups consists of Tullie House Youth Panel, along with one of my young writers from New Writing Cumbria’s Rabbit Rabbit (rabbit) group. They’re working with poet Jenny Lindsay, who ran a fantastic worksop, as part of a series that will eventually lead to all of the young people writing an individual poem and a group piece.
Needless to say, I took advantage of the workshop and drafted a poem of my own. I may be attempting to focus on playwriting, but somehow poems just keep popping up in my head – and who am I to deny them their existence?
The week in books:
Sarah Corbett, And She Was
Mark Ravenhill, Shopping and F***ing
Sarah Kane, Blasted
Tom Michell, The Penguin Lessons
April de Angelis, Plays: 1 [Ironmistress; Hush; Playhouse Creatures; The Positive Hour]
This week has been largely about drama. It’s been a mixture of re-reads (Blasted, Shopping and F***ing and Hush) and new reads (Ironmistress, Playhouse Creatures and The Positive Hour), which has been both fun and refreshing.
I also read Sarah Corbett’s And She Was, which has been sitting in my car for the past few months, begging to be taken inside / into a coffee shop and read. I saw Sarah perform at Ilkley Literature Festival, and got her book (along with Mona Arshi’s Small Hands, also published by Pavillion Poetry) shortly afterwards.
There was also, of course, the book about a penguin that I picked up in Primrose Hill. Because, once I’d bought it, I could hardly resist reading it, now, could I?
The week in pictures:
A little bit of everyday life this week, from insightful passages in books, to cafes, to birthday cake:
Wandering along the Southbank
Rainbow sky in Cumbria
View from Primrose Hill
Tribute to David Bowie on the Southbank
Buying plays from the National Theatre Bookshop
Attendant Cafe, London
New book: The Penguin Lessons
Shopping from the National Theatre bookshop
An evening in by the fire, reading Sarah Corbett
Seen in a shop in Primrose Hill
Dad’s birthday cake
Reading April De Angelis, ‘Playhouse Creatures’
Attendant Cafe, London
Reading Sarah Corbett, ‘And She Was’
The Little One coffee shop, Primrose Hill
Reading April de Angelis & drinking good coffee on the train
I’ve always been a bit contrary. Even when I was at school, I never wanted to do the thing I was supposed to be doing – but in my own special geeky little way. I still worked hard, but I did French homework when I should have been concentrating on maths revision, and then maths homework when I should have been learning French vocabulary.
This week has been a little bit like that.
Recently, I’ve been thinking in plays. I firmly believe that different ideas come in different shapes: some are poem-shaped, some feel like pieces of drama, and some are undoubtedly novels. Recently, I’ve been having a lot of play-shaped thoughts, so at the start of the week, I decided to focus on playwriting and start drafting a piece of theatre that’s been gestating in the recesses of my brain for the past few months.
But, in typical me fashion, no sooner had I started getting words on the page, than my brain started firing off poems with all the frequency and urgency of a machine gun. Which is wonderful! But also slightly irritates the planner in me.
But the plus side of all this is that this has been my most productive week for poetry in over a year, which is wonderful.
It’s also been a week of meetings, starting with a very positive meeting at Shap School, about the prospect of running some workshops there, followed by the lovely weekly informal over-lunch meeting at Eden Arts (the first I’ve been able to make in a long time), and rounded off with a great meeting with James of Three Inch Fools (touring Shakespeare) to talk about marketing for their Easter workshops and performances.
It’s also been a week of flooding and books…
The week in books:
Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber
A S Byatt, The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye: Five Fairy Stories
This week has been a week of modern fairy tales. (I was tempted to add Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted to the list, but I figured I should probably spend the time writing instead.) On Tuesday, I’d planned to pop into Prism Arts in Carlisle for a catch-up, but the wind and rain were so wild that I decided it was safer staying at home. As the river crept further and further back up the road, I snuggled up in front of the fire and read a book that’s been on my to-read list (and on my bookshelf) for years: Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. After that, I was on such a roll with fairy tales, that I decided to also read A S Byatt’s The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye: Five Fairy Stories. Not only were these great reads, but I think they maybe had a slight influence on my wrting this week, too:
Not really any pictures from this week, but I did make a little for-fun video of last week’s trip to Morocco. The main outcome of this was my realising that I need to take much more video footage when I travel somewhere:
Three weeks into my new writing life, and I finally feel like I’m getting into some sort of rhythm. Which is strange, when you think that I haven’t yet had a ‘normal’ week. Take this week, for instance, where I spent the first two days of it in Marrakesh, bartering, discovering and soaking up the sun instead of writing. (Don’t worry, though – I’ve had a few very productive days to make up for it.)
But it hasn’t just been poetry I’ve been writing this week, though I have written and edited a good deal of that. I’ve written a little bit of drama. I’ve also been writing tweets.
Yes, this is the week that I created a trending hashtag on twitter.
For those of you who saw it, I’m talking about the #derangedpoetess controversy. For those of you who didn’t see it, let me give you a brief bit of background:
In last week’s Sunday Times, journalist Oliver Thring published an article about recent T S Eliot Award-winner Sarah Howe. On Friday, sparked by a tweet from Amy Key, a number of poets accused the article of being sexist.
I saw Amy’s initial tweet, followed her link to the article, and watched the responses begin to unfold. To be honest, my opinion was that the article probably wasn’t intentionally sexist; it was just bad writing. But you can read the original article here and decide for yourself.
If you ask me, the really unforgivable sexism set in when Oliver Thring, rather than holding his hands up and apologising for any accidental offence, tweeted this:
This gentle interview with a leading young poet has led various deranged poetesses to call me thick, sexist etc… https://t.co/AN5F2TDbzM
Well, it isn’t every day you get to respond to a term like ‘deranged poetess’! I tweeted a photo of myself writing, looking very calm and serious, and captioned it as a ‘definitely deranged’ poetess. Then I made it a hashtag.
The hashtag then began trending, and was even written about in a Guardian article! The rest, as they say, is history.
It hasn’t all been social media controversy this week, though. Aside from writing in my now Moroccan-goods-filled house, I’ve also been getting over a cold – aided by some medicine I picked up in a Berber pharmacy in Marrakesh. It’s a black powder, which you wrap in a hankie and inhale the scent, a bit like an olbas inhaler. It instantly clears the sinuses – like a miracle cure! Though I would quite like to know what it is that I’m inhaling… Anyone have any ideas…?
It’s also been a week of reading (though not quite as much as I’d have liked), arranging meetings and organising some volunteering work. And socialising! I know – very unlike me… Apparently writing and having a social life actually can go together!
The week in books:
Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong
Ella Hickson, Eight
Mona Arshi, Small Hands
A novel, a play and a collection of poetry: feeling pretty well-rounded in my reading this week. I actually bought Small Hands way back in October at Ilkley Literature Festival, and it’s been sitting in my car ever since, waiting for me to take it into a cafe and start reading it. Unfortunately, my cafe time has been a bit limited since then. But I must say, the little book has waited very patiently, and was well worth it. Some beautiful poems, and also a couple that I could use for teaching, which is always a bonus.
The week in pictures:
As promised last week, this week I’m sharing my photos from Marrakesh. Not necessarily very writer-ly, but full of beautiful bright colours and gorgeous blue skies.
Confession: at the time of writing, the week is not yet over. I wrote and scheduled this post on Friday. Why? I’m currently in Marrakesh.
Bearing that in mind, it’s been a much shorter-than-usual week for writing, truncated even further by the fact that I’ve spent two days at the New Writing Cumbria office, rather than the usual one. I’ve also been delving into the joys of my tax return.
But even despite all that, I’ve been loving the writing time.
I wrote a poem about a whale, which I think is already very close to the final draft stage. I also discovered a very old draft of a very old poem (well, 3 years old), which I had completely forgotten about, and was able to rework into a completed piece. To make matters even better, it became a gogyoshi-ku. Thanks, BAR poets and Jacob Sam-La Rose, for introducing me to that particular poet form. Oh, in case you were wondering, a gogyoshi-ku consist of a gogyoshi (5-line poem that otherwise has no formal structure) followed by a haiku.
I also did something faintly amazing, and organised my computer filing system for my poetry. Whereas before I had one folder called ‘Poetry’, full of everything from finished pieces to brief jottings that should probably never be revisited, I now have a beautifully streamlined system of folders that gives me a geeky little tingle every time I think about it.
For the organisation geeks among you, my ‘Poetry’ folder is now organised like this:
Waiting for news [submitted to magazines]
Poems to work on
[archived drafts and jottings, filed by year]
And, inspired by the wonderful Kim Moore, I’ve now also created an Excel poetry submission spreadsheet, with a list of poems down the side, a list of magazines & journals to submit to across the top, and colour-coded boxes according to whether the poems have been accepted or rejected, or are waiting a response.
Now it’s just a case of making those systems work!
The week in books:
[still reading] Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong
(Though in fairness, it is a long book. And with the train ride to the airport and the long-ish flight to Marrakesh, I may have finished it and be onto something else by the time this post goes live.)
The week in pictures:
Snow in Cumbria
Sorting a year’s worth of paperwork for my tax return
Snow by the River Lowther
Discovered this week in the New Writing Cumbria archive
‘You just went and made a new dinosaur…? Probably not a good idea.’
One week into my new life as a real life writer (!) and it’s time to take stock and see how it’s treating me. Admittedly, it hasn’t exactly been an average week…
I spent most of it in Portugal, thanks to my lovely parents, who decided that after the stress of leaving a job, I needed to relax before really knuckling down to any hard-core writing. So it’s been a week of sun (in small quantities), sand and seafood.
Not working and relaxing abroad means plenty of time for reading, and some time for writing thrown in. Having half-heartedly resolved to write a limerick a day in 2016, this week I’ve managed to write five. (5/7 is pretty good, right?) It’s a great way of practising rhyme without embarking on anything too serious, and a fun way to start the writing day. Here’s my favourite from the week:
There once was a high-handed billy goat
who purchased an outmoded frilly coat.
He thought it looked neat
as he flounced down the street,
but really he looked quite the silly goat!
Naturally, I’m not expecting quite so many late lunches and walks along the beach next week – especially with two days away from the writing desk and in the New Writing Cumria office, and a tax return to complete (joy of joys…)
But I’m definitely aiming for another 5 or so limericks, and plenty other writing besides.
The game, as Mr Holmes would say, is afoot!
The week in books:
E. Nesbit, The Enchanted Castle
H. G. Wells, The Island of Doctor Moreau
William Carlos Williams, Selected Poems
Claire Gaskin, a bud
[currently reading] Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong
This week has mostly been about novels and imagist poetry.
I started off with The Enchanted Castle, which is a classic Nesbit story about a princess (sort of) and a magic ring, and four children who have a magical adventure – and just what I needed to carry the Christmas childhood feeling forward into the new year. Then, shattering that childhood magic into a thousand sharp-edged pieces, I read The Island of Doctor Moreau, which I can only describe as Animal Farm meets Frankenstein meets Lord of the Flies.
William Carlos Williams is an interesting one – largely because he’s really not my cup of tea. Other than the two poems I knew before reading the collection (think: red wheelbarrow and plums in the icebox), there were only two poems in the whole book that I really, really liked – and they came within the last 5 pages. I’m chalking it up to 230 pages of perseverance.
Shelagh Stephenson’s Enlightenment is an unsettling play – one which works on the fears of our imaginations, and the terror of our own smallness in an increasingly global world.
It is this sense of individual insignificance that gives Zoë Waterman’s production such a powerful and contemporary feel – this could be anyone’s house, anyone’s family. In a world where solutions are always just a phone call or the touch of a button away, the sense of these characters’ helplessness pervades the play like a bad dream.
Cate Hamer is a strong central figure as Lia, the mother desperately trying to hold onto herself in her search for answers about her missing son. Through her powerful portrayal of a woman on the edge, we see the struggle for control that plagues all of the play’s characters, from the belligerent Gordon (Peter MacQueen) to Joanna, the ambitious media woman, played by Charlotte Mulliner. Mulliner perhaps best represents the precariously balanced nature of control; she is the character who has most of it at the start of the play, and the only one to bow out as soon as she feels it slipping. Her smart heels and slick performance throw Hamer’s portrayal of a frayed and despairing Lia into sharp relief.
Meanwhile, Patrick Bridgman excels in the role of Lia’s partner, Nick, whose cynical retorts provide much of the play’s humour – a humour that teeters on the edge of hopelessness; Bridgman perfectly balances the two, a master at straddling the line between the emotions he exposes and those he withholds.
However, it is Richard Keightley’s Adam who makes the play a truly disturbing piece. His entrance at the end of the first half is a wave of uncertainty in an already turbulent drama – a wave which becomes a tsunami by the end of the play, as his Machiavellian power games seek to twist the characters against one another with a ferocity that would make Pinter proud. Keightley creates a character with so many layers of manipulation and vulnerability that it becomes impossible to know when (or even if) he ever lays bare this complex character’s troubled core.
Even in such an exceptionally strong season comprising outstanding productions like The 39 Steps and Suddenly Last Summer, Theatre by the Lake’s Enlightenment shines out: a gripping piece of contemporary theatre that seeks to unhinge our sense of control and safety in our own fragile lives.
~ Enlightenment runs at Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, until 7th November 2015 ~
A couple of months ago, I was running a poetry workshop in a small Cumbrian primary school on behalf of the Wordsworth Trust. At the start of the session, I asked the children whether they had any questions about poetry or about being a poet. One boy put up his hand and asked, ‘Are you on medication?’
As if that wasn’t enough, this then shaped the questions from the other children, such as: ‘Do you have any allergies?’ I then had a sensible one (‘How long have you been writing poetry?’), but it was instantly followed by, ‘How old are you?’ and several minutes in which the children frantically tried to guess my age. (If you were wondering, by primary school calculations I could apparently be anywhere between 19 and 43.)
I then started asking around, to see if other poets had similar stories of being asked interesting questions. Turns out, they do – particularly when children are involved.
Some of my favourites came from Helen Mort: ‘You’re the Derbyshire Poet Laureate, so does that mean you write poems about cats?’ Another child asked her, ‘Have you written any poems about sparkly fairies?’ – rounded off by a small yr 3 boy in a primary school workshop, who asked her what was in her handbag and if he could have a look.
Another question, which seems universal, is: ‘What do you write about?’
Universal it may be, but it’s still nearly impossibly to answer – so much so that Alex Bertulis-Fernandes described it as an ‘odd question’, despite the fact that it’s annoyingly common: ‘I’m not quite sure why I find it so strange, and I’m sure I’ve asked others the same – my answers to the question always feel unimpressive though.’
Polly Atkin agreed: ‘I hate being asked ‘what kind of poetry do you write’ as though there is an answer to that.’
She also ventured a couple of things she’d been told as a poet, as well as questions she’d been asked, such as a suggestion that she should use her 3rd place competition prize money buy a notebook so she could ‘keep practising’, as well as the cheek of a male poet who told her she should ‘stick to the women’s magazines’.
Another writer who had been told where he should publish his poetry was Owen Collins: ‘my Mum, when struggling to get her head round my ambitions, once told me that she thought I’d be very good at writing the poems for inside birthday cards…’
I’ve experienced this one myself. When I showed people the first good poem that I wrote (well, I thought it was good; it won a prize, so that’s something), one of my parent’s friends told me it was so good, it should go on the inside of a greetings card. I’m pretty sure he meant it as a compliment, but as it was a poem about dissatisfaction with a dying relationship, I’m not sure what kind of card it would be appropriate for. Maybe some kind of ironic Valentine…?
But I think my favourite contribution came from Lindsey Holland, who was asked: ‘If I write about breasts as hills, from a microscopic perspective, is that landscape poetry?’ And I desperately hope she answered yes.
The Lady of the Lake, by Benjamin Askew: Theatre by the Lake, Keswick
When I heard ‘new play about King Arthur written in verse’, I had mixed expectations. Although I always want poetry and verse to succeed, dealing with an established subject matter such as the legend of King Arthur, while using a more traditional form of script-writing, risks the drama feeling staid.
However, despite the play’s mythological setting, it has a contemporary feel. Benjamin Askew’s adaptation of the legend is carefully crafted and controlled, with dialogue that seems both natural and poetic at once.
The Lady of the Lake is also a play which asks big questions about narrative, authorship and autonomy. Framed in the context of a troupe of players, it becomes a play less about the story itself (although it is, of course, a riveting plot), and more about how that story is told and, more importantly, how it is remembered.
Mary Papadima’s stylised direction perfectly complements Askew’s beautiful and subtle verse, while Elizabeth Wright’s deceptively simple set creates almost a blank canvas on which any story could be told.
The integration of music and movement creates a sensory whirlwind, which at times gives the play an almost impressionistic feel – as though reminding us that the story unfolding before us is as fluid as the lake itself.
The only let-down to The Lady of the Lake is its length, occasionally slave to the richness of its intricate plot and sumptuous beauty of its dialogue. However, there is enough talent in the writing and cast to minimise this issue, with Patrick Bridgman playing an uncertain, heartfelt and sympathetic Arthur, years after his prime. Richard Keightley is a disturbingly enigmatic Taliesin, while Charlotte Mulliner and Emily Tucker channelled much of the show’s vivacious energy as Nimue and Morgan.
Benjamin Askew’s The Lady of the Lake is an ambitious play that (for the most part) carries through. In style and technique it is unlike anything I have seen at Theatre by the Lake in recent years: an intriguing piece of theatre.
The Lady of the Lake runs in the Studio at Theatre by the Lake until Friday 6th November
It’s always exciting as a project races towards its conclusion, seeing all the various strands coming together, slotting into place one after another, often surprising quickly. It’s like solving a rubix cube: one moment it’s a jumble of colours, then suddenly it’s organised and complete. (Or rather, it’s like watching someone else solve a rubix cube – I’ve never been very good at them…)
That’s how it’s been with Yesterday, the musical I’ve written with friend and composer Stephen Hyde. It feels like only yesterday (sorry!) that it was a vague idea we were discussing on afternoon walks in the countryside – and suddenly, it’s complete, cast and in rehearsal.
As a general rule, Theatre by the Lake does big melodramatic comedy well. With a string of successful farces under their belt, and the well-executed vibrant chaos of last season’s Comedy of Errors still in mind, it would have been easy for the theatre to get comfortable.
However, Abigail Anderson’s production of The 39 Steps takes Theatre by the Lake comedy to a new level. It was fast-paced, lively, and witty in its execution. The use Martin Johns’ set was imaginative and entertaining, and added to the quirky success of the play. (In fact, I think this may be the only occasion where I have witnessed a piece of set receive its own round of applause during a scene.)
All four cast members carried the play with seemingly endless amounts of energy. Jonny McPherson’s was a comical mix of inconvenienced English gentleman and dashing, devil-may-care spy, while Frances Marshall transformed with apparent ease from cunning secret agent to innocent and proper love interest , playing all three of her roles with a humour and energy that sparked off McPherson’s own.
Especially brilliant were the two clowns: Patrick Bridgman and Richard Earl. I quickly lost count of the number of characters they each played (often playing multiple characters within the same scene), but each one was unique and entertaining in its own right, and every change was done with superb comic timing.
Special mention, though, has to go to the unseen (but not unheard) star of the show: Sound Designer, Maura Guthrie. Every sound effect (and there were many) furthered the comedy of the play, and helped (along with ladders, a few boxes, some scaffolding and a lamp) to bring the world of The 39 Steps to vibrant and hilarious life.
Abigail Anderson’s The 39 Steps is the best thing I’ve seen in the Theatre by the Lake’s main house in years – and the funniest. We laughed out loud from beginning to end, and would happily go back to see it again. It just proves: you don’t need to go to London to see West End-quality theatre.
Mr Paradise and Suddenly Last Summer at Theatre by the Lake
‘The work of a poet is the life of a poet, and vice versa, the life of a poet is the work of a poet. I mean, you can’t separate them. I mean, a poet’s life is his work, and his work is his life in a special sense.’
Suddenly Last Summer and Mister Paradise are plays about words: about their persistent endurance and the power it gives them.
Where there is power, there is usually fear, and Mary Papadima’s production of Tennessee Williams’ plays contains this fear perfectly, like a wild animal held in a cage barely strong enough. In Suddenly Last Summer, the focal point of this tenuous restraint is the conflict between Mrs Venable (Kate Layden) and Catharine (Emily Tucker). Layden beautifully conveys the desperately wielded control of a woman all too aware that control is slipping away from her, but it is Tucker who truly commands the audience’s attention. Her performance of a frantic and traumatised girl, clinging to the edge, is both powerful and moving; in the battle between dreadful truth and respectable reputation, it is undoubtedly her voice that cries the loudest and speaks the strongest.
Mister Paradise is also a conflict between two characters over the issue of truth versus reputation, although it is much quieter than that in Suddenly Last Summer. Both Peter MacQueen (as Mr Paradise) and Charlotte Mulliner (as the girl) address their sides of the question with honesty and sensitivity. Mulliner’s youthful optimism and MacQueen’s more experienced, world-weary reluctance act as two sides of the coin on which Mr Paradise’s legacy spins. The two work well together, sparking off one another so that at times, it is like watching a tennis rally, and other times, like watching a fusion of minds.
The two plays sit well together, too. By juxtaposing the two, Papadima brings out the common themes of truth and reputation, and the power of words in creating both. In doing so, she not only puts Tennessee Williams’ two plays up for comparison, but also gives added to power to the words of the plays themselves.
I’ve talked about my job project managing New Writing Cumbria here before.
One of the great things about it is getting to organise (and attend) events like this one, held on Valentines Day: n evening of music and spoken word, featuring Lady Layton, Les Malheureux, and a quiz. Plus, what Valentines night would be complete without a bar, a few love letters, and the chance to burn the name of your ex?
One day a week (plus a bit extra), I run New Writing Cumbria for Eden Arts. We do a number of things, btu one thing we’ve just started is putting on events at Penrith Old Fire Station. The first one went down a storm!
The evening featured poet Kareem Parkins-Brown, musicians Kev Kendal and Bill Lloyd, writer Stephen Redman, and filmmaker Richie Johnston. Oh, and a bar inside a horse box, naturally.
It isn’t often that a play can make you laugh and cry simultaneously. Alan Bennett manages it. So does Brendan Murray.
At first, Seeing The Lights is a seemingly light and casual play about family disputes. At its heart, however, it is emotional and highly charged.
As an ill (and possibly dying) old woman prepares for her birthday, the only present she wants is for the whole family to be together to visit the Blackpool Illuminations like they used to. But one of her children is half the world away in Australia, and the two closer to home are far from united. In the confined setting of a northern terraced house, frictions intensify and old rifts widen.
The Theatre by the Lake’s programme describes the play as a comedy, which is largely accurate. However, Murray’s quirky dialogue often catches you unawares, and a surprising turn of phrase can tip the balance between comedy and heart-wrenching sadness – all the more heart-wrenching because of the intimate domesticity of director Stefan Escreet’s production in the Studio Theatre.
The two rooms that make up Anna Pilcher Dunn’s set are recognisably unremarkable, while Laura Cox’s portrayal of the central character, known only as ‘Mum’, feels like the sort of person you would probably know. In fact, the whole family dynamic at times feels uncomfortably familiar.
Terry (James Duke), the son-turned-carer, is at once universal and surprising, witty and tender. Although Seeing The Lights is very much an ensemble production, for me it was Duke’s honest acting and complex emotion towards Mum that carried the play, and it was for him that I rooted in the warzone of family life.
However, some pity also has to be felt for the children’s partners, Ray (Chris Hannon) and Nasir (Alan Suri) – both in their own way caught between two warring camps. Characters who could so easily have become passive and helpless instead provided just enough resistance to the formidable yet vulnerable Muna (Rebecca Todd), to enable the complex and shifting family dynamic that drives the entire plot.
It is also what makes Brendan Murray’s play a mirror in which we can see the fraught complexities of any family. At least, I know I can see mine.
A house in the country. A pretty but distressed girl running from her angry German stepfather. A rumour-mongering woman with a downtrodden husband. A vicious cat, and two slightly hapless cousins waiting for something interesting to happen.
Let chaos ensue…
From the moment we saw the stage, Martin Johns’ set created the tone for the rest of the play: large, respectable, and plenty of doors for hiding places and near misses.
Despite a slightly slow start, Ian Forrest’s stylised production of Ben Travers’ Rookery Nook lived up to expectations. Much of the joy in a farce comes from dramatic irony (knowing something the characters are yet to discover), and this was dealt with superbly by all of the cast.
However, and the scenes of comical violence were less convincing. At times when no action or revelation were occurring, the pacing sometimes felt baggy, as though the play was treading water until the next moment of hilarity. During those hilarious moments, though, we frequently found ourselves laughing out loud, and losing ourselves in the conceit of the play.
The central pairing of conspiratorial cousins Clive and Gerald Popkiss (Bryn Holding and Matthew Vaughan) provided a strong backbone for the play, as they sought to help beautiful ingénue Rhoda (Cate Cammack). Cammack’s initial entrance provided a breath of fresh air for the drama, and it was at this point that the first act really took off.
Chris Hannon’s physical comedy as the downtrodden Harold Twine was well maintained, as his wife (Katie Hayes) sought to unravel the mischief, helped judgmental housekeeper Mrs Leverett (Laura Cox) with her slightly questionable accent.
A special mention needs to be made for Katie Norris’ portrayal of floozy Poppy Dickey; although only on stage for a short time, she provided fun and laughter, and ‘flags for the lifeboats’ became the quote of the night!
Overall, Rookery Nook was an enjoyable evening out, and we came away smiling. Some of the dialogue could have been tighter and the action slicker, but this is something that I’m sure will improve as the performance run continues, and the production becomes the crisp, funny farce that it has the potential to be.
Beneath The Boughs was an installation of contemporary poetry at Lowther Castle, Cumbria, which took place over two months in summer 2013.
The installation featured work by poets from Cumbria to Singapore, and included poems hung from trees, in Victorian summer houses, and even on underwear on a laundry line! The exhibition also included an interactive area, where visitors could create their own poems, as well as work by local students from Shap Primary School and Queen Elizabeth Grammar School.
Over seven thousand people saw the exhibition, which was funded by Arts Council England.
Adapting a well-loved childhood classic is always a risk, but in the case of Theatre by the Lake’s Christmas production of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, the risk pays off. Helen Edmundson’s script, directed by Stefan Escreet, brings the novel to life for a new generation, while not losing the magical and nostalgic feel of the book.
There was a wonderful moment at the start of the show, when there were audible intakes of breath from the audience as the lights went down. Excitement was running high – and it carried on running high for the rest of the evening, for both children and adults alike
For me, one of the most beautiful things about this production was that it reminded me what a play fundamentally is: play. And Theatre by the Lake’s Swallows and Amazons is all about playing.
Designer Martin Johns’ revolving set comprises a huge pile of wardrobes, suitcases and chests of drawers, all of which became the island. The props were similarly created from everyday objects: a parrot from a feather duster; a baby from hot water bottles; birds from garden shears; the Swallow from an upturned table. This creation of the extraordinary from the everyday exercised my imagination, inviting me to play along with the characters. While Theatre by the Lake steers clear of pantomimes, Swallows and Amazons drew me in with a childlike conspiracy of believing, making me feel far more involved in the story than I could have done from just shouting ‘He’s behind you’.
This sense of involvement is aided by the sense of space created by Andrew Lindsay’s superb lighting, and of course by the fabulously versatile actors, who not only play out the story’s various characters, but also sing and dance to Neil Hannon’s lively, catchy songs, and accompany on various musical instruments; I’m sure I wasn’t the only one surprised when only nine people took the curtain call at the end.
All in all, I found Swallows and Amazons a fun and joyous evening out: a performance not just for children, but for the child in all of us.