Sunshine, Star and Shadow

The Late Shows, when galleries, museums and venues are open late and free, in mid May always bring a sense of excitement to the streets as families, young and old wander around seeking and enjoying new experiences and this year we had warmth and long evening sunshine - at last!
My companion grumbled about the glow sticks handed out - ‘more plastic to throw in a bin at the end of the evening’, and she’s right; perhaps we need a more eco-friendly light to guide us and show we ‘belong’.
Down in the Ouseburn valley Lime street was busy with a pop-up choir and creative things to do. I didn’t stay long but made a point of visiting the newly opened Star and Shadow cinema and creative space. It’s amazing what dedicated volunteers have done to transform this old carpet warehouse into a multifunctional building with cinema, bar and cafe, workshops and performance area - I briefly caught Chilli Road band giving it some. And I joined for £1 - not a lot you can get for that these days.
And on Sunday the Star and Shadow are hosting this year’s Julia Darling Travel Award ceremony - where we will hear from last year’s winner who went to America and learn who has won the award this year. I think there’s going to be a film screening of Orlando as well. All just down the road from where I live!
Anyone can get involved in the Star and Shadow - it’s got a FB page and is happy to receive any help on offer. You can’t miss the big building on Warwick street in Heaton. It’s the sort of project that gives hope and optimism for the future. Like the sunshine.

Posted by Ellen on 19 May 2018 at 08:29 AM GMT [Link]


Still Learning

I woke up from a strange dream this Easter Monday. I’d written something critical or sarcastic about the railways and when I went to the station to buy a ticket, three men there said ‘Oh, it’s you’ and put cloth over their heads and refused to acknowledge my request to buy a ticket or speak to me.

What was that about? I’m told that counsellors and therapists say that everything and everyone in a dream says something about the person dreaming it.

Is it about writing; permission to write; self-censorship? Is it about the scary information coming out about how much information there is online about our thoughts, purchases and movements?

April is the cruellest month and my thoughts turn to Julia and Keith and those no longer here. Julia always seemed fearless to me and I try to live up to her example. Don’t be downhearted by failure to write: write better and enjoy living.
Being self employed gives me a sense that I’m never ‘not working’ and free time should be spent at my desk. I feel guilty when I apparently ‘do nothing’ - reading a book, doing a crossword, watching tv, yet all activities feed our imagination.

I’ve started going to Emma Holliday’s art class at the Cluny on a Friday morning and I love it, partly because someone else is giving me permission to do it, and telling me what to do. It’s a way of being creative in an entirely different form from writing and it’s deliriously freeing. Yet I often see parallels with what Emma teaches us about art in how to go about writing: don’t be tentative, make the mark on the blank page, commit yourself, it may not come out how you imagined but you’ve got started, something to work with and change, or an experience to learn from next time you try.

Fear of failure is a huge stumbling block but if I consider giving up writing then I feel bereft, because I love it in equal measure or more than the agony it gives me.

Easter Monday and there’s sleety snow outside my window, a perfect excuse to light the fire and read a book, after I finish the picture in oil pastels of pinky yellow tulips on my windowsill, both given me by a friend (pastels and tulips).
Jill of all trades, mistress of none, but hey! I’m still learning.

Posted by Ellen on 2 April 2018 at 09:58 AM GMT [Link]


Ursula Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin is one of my favourite writers and sadly she died at the beginning of this year. Margaret Atwood wrote a wonderful obituary and I quote some of it:

“In all her work, Le Guin was always asking the same urgent question: what sort of world do you want to live in? Her own choice would have been gender equal, racially equal, economically fair and self-governing, but that was not on offer. It would also have contained mutually enjoyable sex and good food: there was a better chance of that.

The Earthsea trilogy, for instance, is a memorable exploration of the relationship between life and death: without the darkness, no light; and mortality allows all that is alive to be. The darkness includes the hidden and less pleasant sides of our selves – our fears, our pride, our envy. Ged, its hero, must face his shadow self before it devours him. Only then will he become whole.”

And now we see what’s going on in Poland - passing a law denying Polish complicity in Nazi atrocities. I quote from today’s Guardian:
Professor Dariusz Stola, director of the Polin Museum of Polish Jews, which opened in 2013 and is seen by many as a crowning achievement of Polish-Jewish dialogue and reconciliation says:
“Those who condemn Poles en masse are the best friends and allies of Polish antisemites – they feed each other.”
Stola argues that the recent deterioration in Polish-Jewish relations illustrates a wider deterioration in Polish society:
“It is a sign of a deterioration in the capacity to talk, and the ability to talk is the essence of democracy. If you cannot talk, you cannot reach an agreement; you can only force a solution. The erosion of language is the erosion of democracy and the path to violence.”

I would suggest we’re experiencing this erosion in the wider world too and at times like these, it’s up to the poets and writers to speak words of reason and encourage dialogue and thoughtfulness.
Lydia Kennaway’s wonderful poem of the month, Inuit Anger Walk, is an inspiring response to our baser emotions. Rather than lash out in quick ill-considered comments on social media - take a long walk and think about the less pleasant side of ourselves.

Posted by Ellen on 11 February 2018 at 11:55 AM GMT [Link]



This year I was invited to judge the Flambard Poetry Prize with fellow poet Rebecca Goss. The prize is for new writers, who haven’t had a pamphlet or collection published, so an important first step for any aspiring poet. Flambard published my first personal collection Breath, which gave me an enormous boost, and bolstered my sense of self-worth. Also, giving a boost to new writers was the ethos of Diamond Twig press when Julia and I set it up, so I was delighted to be a judge on the prize.
It’s nerve wracking as the huge pile of entries sits waiting (each poet submits 5 poems) when you considered, as Rebecca wrote, ‘the effort and hope that went into producing that waiting stack.’ Yet we had to whittle that pile down to a first and second prize winner and 6 runners up. We had to be careful and ruthless. It was an interesting and enlightening activity.
We found we came up with the same shortlist of poets, so the final process went more smoothly than we feared, and Natalie Rees as second prize and Lydia Kennaway for first was a relatively easy decision.
Runner-up Imogen Forster’s poems travelled geographically and gave vivid physical pictures of landscapes and their inhabitants. They were tightly constructed, restrained and concise poems of place. In Two Rivers:
“This is the precise, specific
thing that fixes time and place,
singular, intimately observed.”
This could be Imogen’s description of her style and writing.
Another runner-up Joe Caldwell wrote moving memories of familial relationships. He displayed a variety of style and form, but all poignant and emotionally accurate as he showed us:
“grandad humming hymns while he polished
the photos of his children in graduate gowns
in vivid colour in faraway towns.”
His poetic images carried a lot of implied backstory. He also personified a hangover very effectively.
There was a sense of authority in 2nd prize winner Natalie Rees’s poems and they moved and intrigued and left a sense of mystery, of more to be discovered. Her poems drew the reader with punchy first lines into strong and confident writing that covered a wide range of subject matter, but all felt like real experiences with convincing detail:
“And we sit and do the crossword
over a pint in Collins’ bar
after the milk market
just before it gets busy”
Natalie’s first collection will be eagerly awaited.

First Prize winner Lydia Kennaway submitted a series of poems from a sequence A History of Walking - what an original idea! and the poems range over wide geographical and cultural boundaries. They felt knowledgable and yet wore their information lightly. Lydia took us on a journey of discovery. The theme that linked the poems gave them a coherence, and meaning was strengthened by rhythm and thoughtful line breaks, here in Sumo:
'Walking starts not in the feet
or the legs or the inner ear
but in the eyes.  
I want is the small, fierce
engine of mobility.’

A well deserved winner.

In a way, when we write we are judging all the time: appraising our words, our choice of line breaks or metaphors, keeping an eye on the overall shape and meaning, crossing out and rewriting as we go. Editing and being critical of your own work is a crucial part of learning the art of poetry or any writing. It’s one I’m still learning.

Posted by Ellen on 19 December 2017 at 01:27 PM GMT [Link]

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