Banana Me Beautiful by Emily Dodd

I don’t think anyone at the launch of Banana Me Beautiful last night could have got through the whole evening without falling in love with Emily Dodd just a little bit.

How can you not love a person who interrupts an intense silence after a poetry reading to sing a song about a horse whose poo smells of roses (complete with whinnying and prrrrr-ing at the chorus); who thinks it’s more important to dress for children than for the Queen when both are in the audience and who, during high school art lessons when everyone else is painting still life fruit, makes a series of artworks featuring a depressed banana character?

The horse song and the depressed banana drawings are published in Emily’s debut poetry collection, Banana Me Beautiful. The photo of her meeting the Queen, wearing a ‘cartoon punk’ dress with puffin puppets on her fingers and children at her feet, is not.

The book is divided into three sections which contain writing, art and photography from three different periods in her life: age 9-11, 15-18 and 25-28. It documents her journey as a writer and a person and, although I have only read the first section so far, I already feel touched that she has shared such a personal journey with the world. The diary entry at the end of part one made me want to laugh and cry at the same time.

Banana Me Beautiful is available as an e-book from Chipmunka Publishing for £5. If you buy a copy you will be supporting a wonderful writer and artist and a publisher that raises awareness of mental health issues and encourages society to listen. The physical book paperback will be out in six months.

Terza Rima

Let me precede this by saying I know my poem is rubbish so you don’t have to pretend it’s good, but if you could give me any tips on how to improve I would really appreciate it.

We were at a dance
You stepped on my shoe
If I had the chance

I would have kicked you
before you birled out of view

I think ideally terza rima should be written in iambic pentameter, but it was all I could do to think of enough words that rhymed, never mind get the right number of syllables in. Any tips on writing rhyming poetry? Or on writing in iambic pentameter? Thank you :)

Sunday Writing Challenge #2

I wanted to write about daffodils, my favourite flowers, but I couldn’t quite get it right. I was thinking of yellow stars and blazes of pollen like comet trails, or maybe an orchestra of silent trumpets. Anyway, that didn’t work out. Next I returned to an image from a short story I once wrote and came up with:

Branches a black scrawl
till the first buds pop
colouring in spring

I also wanted to try writing haikus with even fewer syllables. Simple, silent, calm – that’s what I was going for:

Bridges cast off
the sea har
reflect the sun

Sun lingers
Points of light
on the Forth

Did anyone else write a spring/autumn haiku this week?

For next Sunday I’m going to try writing a poem in terza rima. The simplest form, I believe, would be five lines with the rhyme pattern A-B-A,  B-B. You can have more verses – check out the wikipedia page on terza rima for the rules.

Little Writing Distractions

I really enjoy having short writing challenges to turn to when I need a break from a longer piece. Last month I spent a few mornings working on this haiku for the Scotsman Hogmanay Poetry Competition:

Wings brushing wire mesh,
sharp beaks spray seed, pockmark snow
Birdsong in winter

I loved playing around with the words, exploring different sounds and rhythms. I think experimenting with different writing structures every now and again can give you the bit of creative energy you might be missing if you’ve spent a long time working with only one form.

Recently I’ve come across two mini writing challenges I thought I would share with you, in case you also like the occasional distraction. The first is A River of Stones, which I read about on Rachel Fenton’s blog. The idea is to write a “small stone” every day in January, which means taking a moment to observe something in precise detail and capturing what you see in words. The observations that Rachel has made in her stones are beautiful.

The second challenge is Next Best Page, a competition which aims to produce an innovative piece of theatre by uniting 52 different writers in the creation of one script. Every Monday a new page is added and you have until the following Saturday to write and submit the next page. The project will run throughout 2011 and resulting play will be staged in 2012. Page 8 was added today so check it out and see if you’d like to continue the story with your own page 9.

How do you like to take a break from your main writing projects? Are there any mini writing challenges you would like to recommend?

Genomics Forum Poetry Competition 2010

I’ve long been a believer that the sciences and the arts go hand in hand, that one can inspire the other. I think too often we define ourselves as being either artistic or scientific when in fact both are about creation and discovery.

The Genomics Forum Poetry Competition challenges you to write a poem inspired by the mapping of the human genome, on the theme of ‘improving the human.’

Go ahead and prove me right, prove that science has a place in art and art a place in science. Meirion Jordan talked about reclaiming the moon. What do you want to reclaim?

Interview with Meirion Jordan

Meirion Jordan was born in Swansea in 1985. He read Mathematics at Oxford before going on to the University of East Anglia to complete an MA in Creative Writing. He is currently working towards a PhD in Creative and Critical writing at UEA. His first book of poetry, Moonrise (Seren, 2008), was shortlisted for the 2009 Forward Prize for Best First Collection.

 I find that there is often this misconception that people can be good at the arts or the sciences but not both. Have you ever encountered that? Are people surprised when they learn that your background is in maths?

Most people are a little surprised but they accept it relatively quickly. There’s no real shortage of poets who have a background in science. Miroslav Holub, for example.

 In many of the poems in Moonrise your interest in mathematics comes through in the way you view nature. Do you find there is a natural overlap of maths and creative writing?

There’s a very interesting interplay between maths and creative writing: both attempt to approach notions of truth but in completely different manners. In Moonrise I’m often trying to look at nature as being a complex and systematic force. One thing that I was trying to do with the book was to reclaim this idea of the moon from pure romantic visions, to reckon with it in more technical terms. I read a lot of science fiction and I write a lot of science fiction poetry. That’s another good crossover point. A lot of sci-fi is written by scientists. I like it because it is a literary genre that doesn’t seek to appeal directly to high brow notions of what books and literature should be.

 When it comes to writing poetry do you think your age puts you at a disadvantage compared to older poets with more life experience than you?

I’m inclined to think of it as an advantage. I was 21 when I wrote Moonrise. The book represents an apprenticeship in poetry. It’s very difficult to see a writer’s form without two or three books. Because I’m just getting started, I’ve got nothing to lose, no reputation at stake. I can take risks; it’s an exciting thing for me.

 How do you feel about Moonrise being shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection? Were you disappointed not to have won?

It’s like a big thumbs-up in the sky that I can look out my window at from time to time, but it doesn’t stop it from raining on me! I’m not much of a competitive poet. I can’t say I’m too disappointed about not winning.

 The critical reception of Moonrise has been very positive. All the reviews I have read have been good. Has that been encouraging?

My editor is very enthusiastic about good reviews because it means people are more likely to buy the book. It’s largely a business thing. As a writer, a good review is often more dangerous for me than a bad review. A bad review will tell you what you are doing wrong, a good review won’t tell you anything. I read one review which was generally positive but where the reviewer had some strong reservations about where he thought I was slipping. That sort of constructive criticism of my work is immensely valuable.

 Do you get any useful feedback from doing poetry readings?

Poetry readings are normally done in connection with a book and since the books are rarely published fewer than 18 months after the last poem was written, there is often a big gap between what you are writing at the moment and what people are expecting. I try to reflect what I’m writing about at that particular time. You can usually tell what’s working from how people respond. I’m more gloomy in my writing than I like to be in real life. A short visit to the psychiatrist is a dark poem but people find it a lot more entertaining when I actually read it. I do have a dark sense of humour – certainly in Moonrise – which other people possibly find strange. 

 What are you working on now?

I’m writing poetry on quite historical matter at the moment. In the next few months I’ll be handing my second book into my publisher. I’m going through it now, rewriting to a greater or lesser extent.

 Can you tell me a little bit about the writing process?

It’s definitely a bit of a funny process. Composition occurs in my head rather than on paper. I wrote Moonrise in pencil in my notebooks and was able to go from the blank page to a poem in a relatively short while, writing short lyric pieces of between 4 and 50 lines. I wrote mostly at night after other people had gone to bed, when I had the most mental and personal space.  I’m more diverse in my writing habits now, partly as a result of doing things at UEA. I’m not averse to writing down a few things in the library and I’ve found that I will now write something long straight onto a computer then come back and alter it.

 Apart from diversifying your writing habits, have there been any other benefits from doing an MA in Creative Writing?

It got me into critical writing, linguistics, literary pragmatics – academic pseudo-disciplines that have sprung up around literary criticism. On the creative side, it gave me one year to take my writing places I would not have been able to go had I been writing purely by myself. It was worth doing for that.

 You’ve stayed on at UEA to do a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing. What do you hope to achieve from that?

I’m hoping to get a third book of poetry out of it. It’s all contingent on what my publisher thinks that they can publish. For the moment I’m happy to write away in a university department – there’s lots for me to learn and lots of time. I’m not in any rush. I have so many more years of writing poetry ahead of me – something I do relish a little.

 Where do you see yourself in the future?

I would like to get involved in teaching creative writing, to bring creative writing skills to a wider audience. You can never say anything about how your literary career is going to develop. Poetry takes on more than just a professional form; one can write poems for an audience of one and those are just as important as poems written for hundreds of people.

 Moonrise is available to buy from the Seren Books website.

Carry A Poem

During February there will be poetry events happening all over Edinburgh as part of the City of Literature’s Carry a Poem campaign. There will be opportunities to share your favourite poems with others, to attend poetry writing workshops and to take part in a treasure hunt. I see that Mark Thomson will be performing his poetry in Leith Library next Wednesday. I had an amazing time at a workshop with him last April and I strongly recommend that you go along if you can.

From Monday 1000s of Carry a Poem Books will be given away for free in Edinburgh City Libraries. The book contains a selection of poems, each one accompanied by a story from the person who chose it to explain why that poem is significant to them. I’m desperate for a copy and am already planning the fastest route from work to the library on Monday afternoon.

I’m sure the campaign will not only encourage people to read poems but also to treasure them. Already it’s got me thinking about poems that have meant a lot to me.  I’ve never been a good one for memorising lines (I have friends who can carry on whole conversations quoting only from The Simpsons while the best I can manage is “Doh!”) and I’m not the sort of person who learns poems off by heart. I can’t claim to carry any one particular poem in my head, but there are some that still make me smile long after my memory of the words has faded.  

One of these is Fleur Adcock’s Illiterate, which I recently came across in a journal at the Scottish Poetry Library. The poem describes that confusing time in childhood before you can read or write. Without letters to pin down the words it’s so easy to get them wrong. Adcock recalls her mother offering her crayons and thinking she had said “crowns”. Learning to read brought her clarity but also sadness; all those words that had to be unlearned!

It reminded me that when I was a child I thought that my mum carried a ham-bag and my grandpa was in the Gravy. I spent about a year playing “shoders” at nursery until “shoulder” and “soldier” resolved into two distinct words. Although it’s been a  long time since I made those mistakes, my mum still clings onto my childhood words, offering me “noccit” when I visit home.

The Scottish Poetry Library

What better way to spend an afternoon than sitting around reading magazines? And when you can call it “market research” and count it as work then it’s all the more satisfying. I spent a very enjoyable couple of hours in the Scottish Poetry Library today combing through their large selection of journals, trying to find markets for an interview I’m working on but also reading short stories and poems when the mood grabbed me. The library is completely free to use so if you are in Edinburgh and poetry floats your boat I would definitely recommend a visit. I’m going to keep going back to browse through some jourals that I like (Ambit, The Edinburgh Review, Gutter…) and to be inspired by the library’s huge collection of poems.

A Disappointing Day for Contemporary Poets

I was going to begin this post by wishing you all a happy National Poetry Day, I was even thinking of throwing in a jaunty little haiku, but I’ve just visited the BBC’s poetry season website (I blogged about it a while back) and read the results of the Nation’s Favourite Poet vote and now I don’t feel all that happy or jaunty at all (luckily for you; you’ve been spared my terrible haiku.)

Do you know, only four of the top ten poets were born in the 20th century? I was going to work out the average year of birth but I realised that John Donne in second place, born in 1572, would skew the results somewhat. Thank goodness for third favourite Benjamin Zephaniah, born in 1958, the only one of the nation’s top ten poets who is happily Not Dead Yet.

I certainly don’t wish to undermine the brilliance of the poets who made it into the top ten, I merely wish to point out that National Poetry Day seems not to have reached its goal of “bringing poetry to the public eye” if most of the poets on the shortlist were firmly in the public eye, or at least somewhere in the back of the public’s minds, already. Who has not come across the Nation’s Favourite Poet T.S. Eliot before?  Have we not all had William Blake, W.B. Yeats and John Keats forced down our throats at school? Where are all the contemporary poets?

Before voting took place, thirty poets were pre-selected by a panel of judges (including the Director of the Poetry Society and the Director of the Arts Council). Each of the thirty names on the list is accompanied by a head shot and if you scroll through all the photos, you will see that only seven of them are in colour. That’s right. Most of the pre-selected poets lived before colour photography either existed or became popular. Some of them, judging by the oil paintings and pencil sketches, were around before photography existed. What were you thinking, panel of judges? You have done a great disservice to contemporary poetry. Looking at this list of thirty poets, one might think that poetry was a dying art.

On the contrary, poetry is alive and well and evolving with the times: in the last decade or so with the advent of mobile phones we’ve seen poems written in text speak and condensed into 140 characters; there have been poetry slamming events popping up around the country and videos of poets performing their work are all over youtube. The list of stale poets in the top ten (with the exception of Benjamin Zephaniah) makes no reflection on the dynamic nature of poetry. There are poets writing now about current affairs, about troops in Afghanistan and knife crime in London, issues that people today feel strongly about and can identify with. I have never studied English literature and I don’t read poems critically, but for enjoyment. I don’t feel that I can engage with the writings of TS Eliot, no matter how popular his poems were at the time he was writing with them. I do feel something, a kind of pang of recognition, when I read the poems written by women in the New Writing section of Mslexia. (Another disappointing fact: not one woman features in the nation’s top ten).

After this rant you’re probably expecting me to recommend some contemporary poets. I’m not an expert at all but recently I’ve come across and liked poems by Mark Thomson, Liz Niven and Meirion Jordan.  Here are links to youtube videos of Mark Thomson and Meirion Jordan reading their own poetry. Enjoy!

Three Oxford Poets – Oxford Alumni Weekend 2009

The second highlight of the Oxford Alumni Weekend was hearing three prominent poets read a selection of their work. After the readings, poets Bernard O’Donoghue, Jenny Joseph and John Fuller answered questions from the audience.

Q: Can you tell us something about the writing process?

JF: Sometimes a chance word in your notebook suddenly flowers and you’re off, and then there are those poems that you are bound to write. They’ve always got to be created from something somehow. You have to work on them and you can’t rely on flashes of inspiration.

JJ: I’m trying to avoid saying ‘bloody battle’! The Torrent took over two years to write. I had stacks and stacks of notes. At one point I was worried I wouldn’t be able to finish it. You’ve got to sit with the bits you’ve got and go on with it. The battle shouldn’t show in the poem. If it does show then the poem isn’t finished yet.

B O’D: There are poems that write themselves quickly and ones you have to work on. The ones that write themselves quickly are often the most satisfying.

Q: Do poets have editors?

JF: I’ve published poems for 48 years and 95% of the time I’ve had no editorial feedback. I recently got a new editor who has made suggestions on the placement of poems in the book or told me that they don’t understand a poem.

JJ: A publisher will feel that a poem is made before it gets to them. If the poem is commissioned, they do feel like tailoring it more.

Q: What relevance do form and meaning have in your poetry?

JF: I’m fully concerned with form in every facet, but meaning has to be there, of course.

JJ: I can’t separate them at all. I can’t think of form as a piece of clothing that you can take on or off. Mostly it’s the form that comes first in that you hear the rhythm or the shape of the poem. The words are hovering and you’ve got to sort of dig them out.