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]


Walls and Bridges project

During the summer I appeared as an extra in my friend Tessa Green’s TV pilot. You may not know her but you probably know her work as she designed the cover for Ren and the Blue Hands. She’s a painter and writer who is now also working in film, tv and audio visual art.
The Decision (the pilot episode of a six-part TV drama) is timely, putting the lives of women, particulary older women, centre stage. I’ve watched the work develop from the very first reading last year and think its exactly the kind of TV we need and it’s a bonus that it’s made in the north east with a local cast and crew.
It has a great cast (including Charlie Hardwick) and explores lots of issues facing women in the north-east post Brexit.
Tessa has launched a Kickstarter campaign which is due to expire on Friday 27 – if it doesn’t reach its target by then, they will get nothing. These are the links:

Walls and Bridges: The Decision
As a judge, wife and friend, Chrissie has three decisions to make: one legal, one personal and one that may be both.



Please consider supporting this excellent project - I would love to see it come to fruition. We need more TV like this.

Posted by Ellen on 21 October 2017 at 03:05 PM GMT [Link]


It's a steal

Stealing, creative borrowing, copying, intertextuality, post-modernism? The issue of plagiarism has come back into the public eye because of the recent article by Will Storr in Guardian Weekend magazine on Saturday 9th September. I am mentioned in the article because I was the first to notice two poems in another poet’s collection that mirrored my own so closely it felt like reading my own poem. I was stunned.

The responses that have been thrown up to this Guardian article and the comments I’ve seen have been bothering me, partly because defences of the practice have been made by people who have not read the original or the copy, and partly because those who have, contrive to blame the plagiarised!

It also bothers me that definitions have been bandied about very loosely: intertextuality etc.

My understanding of intertextuality is an author's borrowing and transformation of a prior text, and a reader's referencing of the first text in reading the other. The point of the new text created is to comment on the original - the reader knows the original and the new text is in dialogue with it. The author is writing deliberately to comment on the original text.

‘Postmodern literature is a fairly loose term anyway; parody and pastiche could come under this label - but again, the whole point of writing a text is the fact that your reader is well aware of the original, which the new text is playing around with.

Neither of these techniques describe a poet authoring a collection about a theme, using other existing poems as scaffolding that have nothing to do with this theme. That is not intertextuality or postmodernism. And calling it ‘sloppy note-keeping’ because the author failed to acknowledge their sources is not a defence.
It is not co-incidence, it’s not the same idea in different words. It’s the same words, with a few changed. Plagiarism from the Latin plagiarius: kidnapper, seducer, literary thief.

Those of us who write or teach creative writing are well aware of the value of studying other poets and using them as inspiration to create new pieces of writing. Perhaps the new poem might start with the same first line, or quote some words from the original; however it’s done, the poem created must move far enough away to be an entirely new, unique and personal poem. No-one would fault that approach, and many collections will have one or two poems that might have ‘after…poet’ under the title, or a foot note in the back of the book acknowledging the influence of another poem or poet.
You wouldn’t expect 50% of the poems in a collection to do that and you certainly wouldn’t expect to recognise 50% of the work to be almost identical in a number of ways to other existing poems.

When I first brought this issue to the attention of the poet and the publisher, I received an apology from the poet, Sheree Mack, saying she never meant to upset anyone. Well, she did, but I accepted her apology. She also said this was her usual practice. Again I was stunned. How could a poet at such a level of publication success use such lazy methods?
As Ira Lightman, “poetry sleuth” said in the interview, plagiarists never do it once”.

Writing poetry is hard, writing anything original is hard and yes, we’re all influenced knowingly or otherwise by other texts - it can’t be helped. But no-one should set out to do it as their ‘usual habit’. There’s no quick writing-by-numbers route to good poetry.
For those who refuse to see it as copying, I give you one example:

The Box my original poem

I was eight, just long enough to lie
inside the ottoman and close the lid.
Which I did once with Peter Silkin
playing Sardines, tight amongst the cloth.
It seemed a good idea to kiss.
We put our lips together, squashing them,
felt the way our noses rubbed and bumped
and realised how difficult it was to breathe.

I heard of Peter Silkin yesterday
and thought about the ottoman again;
the musky, tight interior, could sense
his handsome face, the gentle smile,
the lack of breath, the dark, the closing lid,
the forty years that lay between.

the copy poem The Den

I was nine, old enough to know where the darkness began.
Into a carved out tunnel in the mahogany hills, I crawled
with Lionel once or twice, playing dares, tight amongst
the hard parked earth.

It seemed a good idea to touch.
It seemed a good idea for our hands to explore each
dark body. In the dark knuckles knocking bone,
finger tips delving into deep dark depths.

I heard about Lionel yesterday and thought again
of our earth-packed den: the damp, dank, moist tunnel.
I could sense his long smooth limbs, his toothy white smile,
the tingles, the dark, the close, aimless dark
and the dark lost years that lay between.

Reading that felt like complete theft of my ideas, phrases, structure, creativity and my personal experience.
Ira Lightman conducted his search with professionalism, diligence and never insulted anyone. To discover in the Guardian article that the publisher, Andy Croft of Smokestack Books, thinks Joan Johnston and I are simply ‘jealous girls’ is unbelievable. I quote from the Guardian article:
“He characterises the fuss as nothing more than “a series of low-level petty jealousies”. Mack, who is of Trinidadian/Ghanaian/Bajan ancestry, “is one of the tallest, most striking women you’ve ever come across”, Croft says. “A lot of the original animosity was from white women poets in Newcastle. I don’t even want to know how to unpick that. To begin with, it felt like some girls in a catfight, picking on the most glamorous and the most beautiful girl, because they’re not as glamorous and beautiful.”
That is misogynistic, insulting and beside the point. He demeans everyone involved including his disgraced author. Would he couch the argument in those terms if the dispute was between men?
God knows I make little enough money out of poetry, the least I could be left with is my words and my integrity.

Posted by Ellen on 14 September 2017 at 07:45 AM GMT [Link]

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