Paris, thoughts.

I’m not even sure how to start this blog-post which is symptomatic of much at the moment. I’ve been trying to evaluate my response to the Paris Attacks and I have to admit that I’m finding it really difficult.

I was once called ‘the poet of aftermaths’ at a reading and agreed that the label fitted. All of my responses to world events, be they natural disasters (the Japanese tsunami) or man-made (the coalition invading Iraq), have been written down as a sort of exorcism, an emotional bonfire. It’s always been the easiest way for me to understand my own bearing towards an event or situation, and therefore has the added benefit of acting as self-therapy. So it’s become something of a reflex of mine to diarise events via the medium of poetry, to turn things inside out and turn them over to metaphor in a bid to get closer to them, understand them more.

Post-Paris however, I just can’t find the words. I’m so fatigued by the same roll-call of emotions playing themselves out to inevitable ends once again. I need to be clear here and define that the problem isn’t that I feel too little, it’s more that it is just too much. We are all feeling too much and I see that many of us are experiencing this same blur of anxiety over where things are going and over the lives lost already. We know that bombs will not solve this problem, but it’s hard to see how dialogue will at this juncture too. In light of this circular, philosophical checkmate any thoughts are short-circuited by the impossibility of it all.

Despite that lack of clarity, I’ve had several strong impulses that I’m sure are married to these events and those that have preceded them. I want to invest myself in ‘bigger picture’ movements more than argue the toss over what exactly David Cameron should ‘do’, or debate the best way forward with foreign policy, etc. I’m tired. I’m tired of all of the debates, the lack of lessons learned. We have marched on parliament, we have filled column inches and shared hashtags like nobody’s business. But still it goes on and we do it all again.

I’ve been reading a lot of Naomi Klein over the past few years and am convinced by her polemic that a) the world is a mess because of aggressive neo-liberalism and that b) we are destroying the world by being ever more disconnected from it. I’m not going to discuss either point in detail because I think most people are familiar with those tenets and if not, Klein’s books The Shock Doctrine and This Changes Everything are available near enough everywhere. I think that part of the way forward is to solve problems a and b by simply stepping away and refusing to play the game any more. Clearly, that’s difficult for most people to do because it’s (very) hard to be self-sufficient. But that’s my human impulse, divorced as it might be from practicalities. I’ve got an urge to relocate to some remote spot in the Scottish Highlands or suchlike, and eke out an existence that is simpler. A life in which neighbours are shown compassion, in which the production of seeds and art are prioritised over the need to make money. A life devoid of Facebook, chemicals, the news-cycle, the endless howl of angst. I’m starting to think about how this might be possible despite the obstacles (largely of a financial nature, *irony*). I’ve started by culling Facebook and by reading books on agriculture. You might think that what I suggest is miles away from the initial topic of this post. But it isn’t, it’s about finding a new way forward because the current way is simply not working. Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote last year that ‘if we all run naked in the streets at the same time, the police won’t be able to stop us’, and it’s kind of like that. If we all decide to love each other, then they can’t stop us. I know that some would say ‘ha! Well good luck with convincing the terrorists!’ But I’m not trying to, i’m convincing myself and myself alone. Because I have to.

In two weeks time, I will be burying a child, a relative of mine who stopped breathing because not everyone is built to last. My thoughts about her are tied into my thoughts about Paris and I think that those of us that survive have a duty to do something positive with this stupid mixed up ball rolling its way around the galaxy. Too many people have died, too many people are in pain, too many people have just gone mad with anger and the internal howl continues to rise and disperse nowhere. Let’s garner this energy, the anti-matter of grief to begin to heal and thaw the dark. My own personal solution is one thing and it is for me, your response may be different. But we are all of us people, when you strip it all away.

‘They tried to bury us.

They did not know that we were seeds.’        

(Dinos Christianopoulos)






Where have I been?

So! Where were we?… we were in 2013 to be precise and I was just saying that I’d been longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize and then I fell completely silent. For a year and a half. Why? Well, because I ONLY went and had the best year ever and I sort of forgot to internet for a bit. But now I’m back, hurrah! Just to bring us up to speed, I’ll outline where I’ve been and what I’ve been up to, and then we’ll get back to the usual poetry type stuff.

So the longlisting turned into the shortlisting and then things went a bit nuts. I couldn’t have really anticipated how the Dylan Thomas Prize would affect things, but being part of it really marked a line in the sand in terms of how I looked at my own writing career. It was something that provoked me to acknowledge that I should take my writing seriously – not in a navel-gazing hipster way, but I just became aware that I should start respecting my own writing time and not continue to treat it like a side-line hobby.

The original hellraiser, Dylan Thomas

The original hellraiser, Dylan Thomas

The prize week itself was one of the best experiences that I’ve ever had. Me and the other shortlistees were installed in a beautiful house surrounded by horses and hills for the week and taken out each day for publicity calls. The Guardian described our set-up as ‘The Hunger Games crossed with Big Brother’ given that we were all, in a sense, competitors, and also, we were being filmed constantly. Despite the artificiality of the situation (and the fact that we were constantly knackered from being awake for about 23 hours a day which was partially our own fault), it was actually fertile ground for the creation of new friendships as all seven of us were in the same unusual situation and we all navigated it together. I’m still in regular contact with five of the seven short-listees. Infact, Marli Roode, the brilliant south-African novelist is teaching a residential course with me this coming Autumn. I would go into more detail about the experience but really, it would just be gushing because it truly was the best time. And I can imagine reading about it would just be like looking at somebody else’ holiday pictures: faintly boring and abstract.

So fast forward two months to the early Spring of 2014. The dust had settled and I was thinking about what to do next. One morning, staring into my laptop screen, an email popped up asking me if I fancied writing a short story to go in an anthology, and then would I mind going on a mini European tour from the UK to Italy to Germany with the book (I thought about it for about half a second. There is really only one answer to that question!). Then I got phone call from somebody else asking if I’d like to go to Canada ‘next month’. And that was pretty much the template for my year. I was invited to Melbourne, to Sweden (but couldn’t go because I was shortlisted for another prize and had to stay in the country for the awards evening) and to  British festivals and events.

Me on stage on Italy with Luca Giordano and Florian Kessler. I'm huddled on the right with my translator.

Me on stage on Italy with Luca Giordano and Florian Kessler. I’m huddled on the right with my translator.

I celebrated my publishing house’s 21st Birthday at the Hay Festival with many of my lovely Parthian stable-mates. I saw Icebergs in the north Atlantic, flew over the Alps, saw Raphael tapestries in a neo-classical palace and then had to be ‘contained’ in said palace because a protest had started outside (not my fault). I’ve navigated foreign cities by myself in boiling heat and deathly cold. I’ve met some fantastic people and generally, lived my life thoroughly, properly.

Me, Dan Tyte, Joao Morais and Rachel Trezise pre-Parthian's 21st birthday bash

Me, Dan Tyte, Joao Morais and Rachel Trezise pre-Parthian’s 21st birthday bash

And I got a tiny bit of writing done too. My second book, The Undressed, was released in 2014. Claire Houguez (Parthian) did an amazing job of making the book look elegant. As well as working in publishing, Claire has a (not so secret) side-line in burlesque dancing. She makes all of her own costumes and therefore has an eye for period detail and femininity. She was just the perfect person to direct the visual style of The Undressed. The book itself is based on a cache of antique nude photographs of women and Claire’s interests just dovetailed with it beautifully. At some point, I’ll take some pictures of Claire’s little details on the inside pages and post them up here.


What else? I also bought a caravan (!) and was unexpectedly landed with an 11 week old mongrel pup. I called him Seamus. And that is about it.


I’m just grateful for every tiny second of the past year, it’s been magic. I’d spent quite a few years chained to a desk doing research prior to the DT Prize so it just goes to show that you never know what’s going to happen. I’m now taking some time to focus on a lengthy piece of work again – a new novel inspired by my travels to Newfoundland. I want to get back to reading about Plath too. I’ve been neglecting her as much as I have been neglecting this blog. Sometimes, I don’t do modern life very well. I know that we are supposed to document every tiny thing these days but when I’m into something, I don’t often stop to take pictures or Tweet about it. But I’m glad I wrote this out, it’s reminded me of so many great things, and people. Here’s to the next twelve months!

Ciao for now!


A Timely E-mail!

Last night I was just thinking to myself ‘I’d better update my blog’ and then somebody emailed me out of the blue to ask that I put some new material on here. So all in all, I’m thinking that updates are imminent. So much has happened since my last post so I’m not quite sure where to start but I promise I’ll be back shortly with a new entry or two, but in the mean-time, I’ve updated my ‘About’ page as that was seriously out of date:

Speak soon!



Longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize (edit: and later shortlisted)!

Hi all,

I’ve been neglecting my blog for a while now, but I promise to get back into the swing of things shortly! Happily, my book, The Shape of a Forest, has now been published, and I’ve been busy promoting that, which has been such a great experience – will bring you up to date on all of the goss soonish. For the time being, though, I can’t resist sharing my big news immediately. Reader: I have been longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize 2013! I found out on Thursday, which, being a school night, was only mildly celebratory. Ditto Friday (I had a lot of driving to do on Saturday morning), so my delayed celebration took place last night and let’s just say, omelettes and coffee were a necessity this morning. Anyway, full details of the prize, and the other 11 writers longlisted here:

The great man himself, Mr Dylan Thomas

The great man himself, Mr Dylan Thomas

Leaps and Spirals Travelling the World Forever: On the 50th Anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s Death

Tomorrow will be 50 years to the day that Sylvia Plath died. To some, that death is the locus, the keyword, the short-hand fact that fleshes out the little that they know about the poet. To me, she meant so much more than that, she is more substantial than a romantic suicide fantasy. She has informed my life, both practically and emotionally ever since I first encountered Ariel when I was sixteen years old. For this reason I feel that I should mark the day but it is hard to know how. The difficulty arises initially from the anniversary itself. How do you mark a ‘death-day’? Not with celebration of course, but mourning is equally inappropriate because I didn’t know her. And what to say, when there is so much to say? I am a confirmed Plathite however, and it is a milestone so I really should say something.


I’ll start at the beginning. I first ‘met’ Plath in my mid-teens. She was sat at the back of my English classroom. Multiple copies of Ariel were stacked in a neat pile surrounded by dusty copies of other forgotten tomes: Wordsworth, Auden, Coleridge. Items of value that had fallen off the syllabus, and therefore out of relevance. I’ll admit that I only picked Plath out because she was female and I wanted to hear what an important one of those sounded like. Who was this rare woman allowed into the pantheon of male greats? Unfortunately, I found her writing profoundly impenetrable at first glance. From the tulips on the red cover, I’d expected verses about love but instead I found strings of words bearing no relationship to the shape of any emotion or intellect I’d ever felt. I didn’t really know what to do about this (I’d always been an A* student in Eng. Lit. and my defeat intrigued me). So I stole the book, which was a little bit naughty, but the volume was so neglected that the thin spine audibly cracked when I opened it. I figured nobody would miss it. I missed the rest of my classes that afternoon, took the book into the fields behind the school and puzzled over its contours a little bit more.

Skipping forwards to my A Levels (exams taken by eighteen year olds in the UK), we studied Othello, Pride and Prejudice and The Bell Jar. Now I know that this remark will cause some consternation amongst Eng. Lit. academics, but why the obsession with Shakespeare? Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet AND THEN Othello – my God, I studied all of these! Is Shakespeare the only playwright in the world? And Pride and Prejudice? In my (eighteen year old) opinion, there was only one saving grace to that story, and that involved Colin Firth and a lake. But The Bell Jar was different. I read it cover to cover without stopping and could still, if pushed, recite the opening paragraph word for word, ‘It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs…’ I think that certain people, especially at the age of eighteen when the road is forking wildly in front of you, connect viscerally to rhythm of The Bell Jar. That undercurrent of ennui and confusion. The distinct feeling that everybody else seems to understand their place in the world, except you. It has that in spades. But it isn’t distilled teenage melancholy at the baseline, nor is it (and I’m hissing this through my teeth) ‘women’s literature’. It is life literature and elegant. It’s affirming and wry and still. It has scope. People accuse it (I love that a book can be accused) of being ‘introverted’ but what is bigger than individual experience? Answer me that. ‘Nothing happens’, critics say. But everything happens, it’s a survey of days burning (and yes Plathites, my phrasing is intentional).


It’s important to note that at this point I knew little of the infamous St. Botolph’s party, of the tragedy of untreated complications arising from diabetes, of a tall northerner with commitment issues, the miscarriage, a green-eyed seductress, the antidepressants, the snows of 1963, the doorway being taped up, the suicidal stars and hypnosis, the bread, the milk, the oven. I was uninitiated and remained that way until Plath swam back into my field of vision several years later when studying for my MA. I was meandering around a great many topics trying to settle on one for my dissertation. The semiotics of packaging, Keats and seditionary language, the political usage of graffiti. I tried everything on but nothing quite fitted until I remembered Plath. I was going through a difficult patch in my personal life (I’ll level with you, I was heartbroken) and returning to The Bell Jar, I found a confidante. Afterwards I re-opened my contraband copy of Ariel and the hieroglyphs rearranged themselves. My Ariel-dyslexia was cured and here I found a language that was born not of the pale imitation of literary ‘forefathers’ but instead, plucked straight out of high consciousness. Her night-ride on Ariel was the most thrilling thing I’d ever read, I found that it was actually quite possible to fall in love to her words (‘A smile fell in the grass. Irretrievable!’). You can fall apart quite easily to them too, renowned as they are for their nihilistic bent. The pages were a map of the cosmos, a contact sheet of refined human experience at the extreme end of the scale. Our worst moments and the bit that comes after the worst – the pendulating between not giving a damn and becoming ‘Lazarus’, and the acknowledgement of the fact that after a burnt bridge comes a blank canvas and everything is subject to redesign. That wide open door.

The 'fierce flame' flowers that I left for Plath. Copyright JLK 2013

The ‘fierce flame’ flowers that I left for Plath. Copyright JLK 2013

The next few months were characterised by Plath-centric high strangeness but that’s a story for another time, long as it is. All you need to know for now is that against all odds (well, perhaps not against all, but put it this way: it was competitive), I received a scholarship to study for my PhD. and by this point I knew that the focus of my research would obviously be Plath. By now the words of ‘The Priestess’ had become my own eclectic bible. I’d taken my own pilgrimage to her grave, left her a pen from my handbag (if you’ve ever been to Plath’s grave, this will make sense) and left her one of my poems. I was wholly unpublished back then, but sitting here now, I know that the poem that I left will be published in my forthcoming collection. I am now an award winning poet myself, but I feel quite strongly that this achievement would have been unlikely had it not been for my education through the words and experiences of Sylvia Plath. I’ve devoured every poem, story, journal entry, every biography, hell! Even every Ted Hughes biography! I am veritably obsessed. And even as I write all of this, I know that I am just skimming the surface of my connection to Plath. If I were to take you down every detour that my synapses keep flinging themselves down on Sylvia Street, we’d be here all night.  Let’s just say that some people find God, or Buddha or crack cocaine. I found somebody who was on first name terms with the edges of life and as fickle as my character can sometimes be, I know I’ll be a Plathite for life. I’m still not resolved on how I actually feel towards the 50th year anniversary, my bearing towards it is as joined up and as knotty as any good Plath poem. It’s heartening to know that she is remembered, and not just remembered but is as controversial, divisive and demanding as ever. Plath’s bees are perpetually flying towards spring, and that red eye, the cauldron of morning. So let’s just raise a glass (of brandy preferably), she’d approve.

The Production of Children or the Production of Language

Has anybody else noticed how competitive the glossy magazine business has become? It used to be the case that I’d pick up a title in the supermarket, read it, recycle it, whatever. Now I’ve got them ringing my house asking if I’ll buy an annual subscription for half price, nay, quarter price, what about a quid for six issues? How about if we throw in a really expensive pot of face-cream made from mashed fairy wings and pasteurised gold? So of course, I fall for this every time (free stuff, what can I say) and now I’m currently subscribing to a squillion publications that I barely have the time to flick through.  It’s a problem I need to resolve when I’ve got the time (read: never). So anyway, out of guilt, I decided to make a dent in the pile and speed-read my way through a few of them the other night. The article that demanded my attention above and beyond the thousand others was a piece in Marie-Claire about ‘the selective fertility crisis’! I.e. that women are now having careers which is of course, putting the whole human race in jeopardy. Oops us.

Marie-Claire’s approach was to take one 30-something writer who is debating whether or not she should procreate, and have her interview one woman who swapped her career for children and is happy, one who swapped her career for children and isn’t, one woman who didn’t have kids and regrets it and one who didn’t who doesn’t, got that?  Umm anyway, why is this relevant? Well, when I was writing my MA Dissertation on Sylvia Plath I read Susan Van Dyne’s assertion that female writers always have to choose between ‘the production of children or the production of language’. The clarity of the dilemma rang true to me back then and three years on, getting no younger, my imaginary Van Dyne voice has taken on a slightly more urgent tone. Not that I want children now. I’m probably not the best person to put my personal spin on this issue. I have about a billion questions that would need an affirmative answer before I would take the plunge and breed. I have no idea how people just suddenly decide to multiply. But obviously, I’ll soon be in what is officially classified as my ‘late twenties’, so I’d better start thinking about it. Or what? Well I’ll probably just accidentally end up having a career and no kids and society will hate me or something.

Sylvia Plath with her husband, Ted Hughes, and baby Frieda Rebecca Hughes

Sylvia Plath with her husband, Ted Hughes, and baby Frieda Rebecca Hughes

Getting back to the point, the echoes between January’s Marie-Claire and female writers from the middle of the twentieth century patently shows that this debate is really nothing new. There were just less women having to face the problem back then because women generally had less options. If you were lucky enough to have a vocation, the dilemmas of the 21st century probably occurred to you a few decades earlier than to the rest of society. I interpret Van Dyne’s words as focussed on the psychology of motherhood on the writer specifically but I believe the sentiment to have broader application. Motherhood, whether you are a writer, a painter, a lawyer, doctor or sales assistant, involves a heavy degree of sacrifice both in terms of time and of self. In most cases I believe a compromise will be naturally reached. Indeed, for writers like Plath, the production of children actually induced the production of an abundance of words. Whilst nursing, she put her hormones and the wee small hours of the morning to work to produce the honest aubades of ‘You’re’, ‘Morning Song’ and ‘Nick and the Candlestick’. So it isn’t hopeless, and wasn’t back then. And not to be self-promoting, but if anybody wants to tell me that it didn’t exactly work out for Plath, then I’d point them towards my paper on Plath’s poetry in relation to her fertility/maternity: I don’t disagree with Van Dyne, I think the conceit is demonstrable in so many ways. Anything, any element of one’s life interferes with writing. Motherhood is guaranteed to throw a stick of dynamite in whatever it is that you consider order. However, from chaos and all that…

But what of us post-millenials who are realising that writer or not, we can’t actually ‘have it all’ (if there was an emoticon for furious, I’d utilise it here). Indeed, the 21st century is not conducive at all to the creation of families. When I was a child, and all this adult hand wringing was light-years away, my parents, aunties, uncles (all in their twenties) had their own homes, they were married, they seemingly always had cash to ‘re-do’ the kitchen or whatever. Our generation isn’t up to much at the moment, let’s be honest. Nobody owns their own property or has a clue how to get onto the property ladder (in the sense that nobody has anywhere near enough money), many of them don’t have regular employment. Most are underemployed or underpaid. Most of them aren’t in a position to own a hamster, let alone an actual newly minted human being. And by the way, I include men in this too. They are no better off. So my conclusion is actually that I’ll just keep the words coming, because frankly, everything else looks a bit bleak. When it comes to the ‘choice’ of having a family these days, most of us don’t really have the option.

Work it is then.

My Five Year Old Could Have Done That!

I’m going to take a brief aside from poetry to talk about one of the world’s most annoying received phrases instead. Yup, I’m talking about that very original refrain: ‘My five year old could have done that!’ (Hereafter shortened to MFYOCHDT!)

Most of you will recognise this argument-starter as the favoured assail of those that don’t appreciate modern art. It’s a hard one to combat too. There are perhaps too many ways to answer it, and too many barriers on the other side. The two sides of the argument short circuit themselves in exasperation. Nonetheless, it is one of my chief irritations because it’s the verbal equivalent of crossing your arms, digging your heels in and refusing to engage with the subject. It also assumes a level of arrogance that, to me, is incomprehensible. Modern art is there to challenge. By its very nature it provokes strong reactions – maybe you love a piece, maybe you hate it. But to refuse to even acknowledge it? Hmmmm…

                                                                              Comments from a certain newspaper…

Modern art is often materially reductive, but all the more powerful for the lack of fussiness. It is the distillation of a feeling, a snapshot of a moment. The stripping of layers serves to highlight the properties that the artist sought to convey in their purest forms. Trying to engage with those sensations is to try somebody else’s skin on. Whose five year old can create that illusion?

Part of the problem, I feel, is embarrassment. ‘MFYOCHDT’ is shorthand for discomfort and incomprehension. It’s a get out clause to avoid attempting to understand the work. Amazingly enough, I’m not the only one out there who is sick of hearing the same old put-down. I’ve discovered that Susie Hodge has written a timely book that acts as a tour guide through some of the more controversial moments of recent art history. She has created an accessible and absorbing volume that provides contexts to installations and paintings derided by the MFYOCHDT gang.

If you have an overuser of ‘MFYOCHDT’ in your life, you could do worse for an xmas present:

That is all.