Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Lyric Lounge 2010

Last night saw the grand finale of Lyric Lounge 2010. A temporary spoken word venue which has toured through the East Midlands; transforming found spaces into accessible hives of lyrical activity with linked live events aimed at attracting young people and a range of culturally diverse participants and audiences. The aim for this engaging concept is to reach out and generate new interest in spoken word performance, and I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to attend three out of the four festivals this year, which were held in Derby, Leicester, Nottingham and Loughborough.

To me each lounge was unique, with its own ambience and personality, yet also similar, like children born from the same mother. They created a place where the power of the spoken word, poetry and lyrics was celebrated for its ability to connect, entertain and inspire. They have reached out, developed and showcased the talent of local writers and groups and have also been host to such eminent poets as John Hegley, Jean Binta Breeze and John Agard. People were actively encouraged to share their work, whether it be at one of the many open mic opportunities, workshops or 1-2-1’s with professional poets held in the festivals, or even invited to write poetry on the tables, which were ingeniously decorated with bight paper table cloths stamped with the words ‘write on me’. For me the Lyric Lounge acted as a conduit, allowing the audience to reach out into different cultures and groups in the counties, and I feel deeply moved by the experience. The quality of the work by people involved in each of the Lounges has been exceptional, with people honest enough to bear part of themselves and connect through the vehicle of verse and rhyme.

The last performance of these fantastic festivals was the critically acclaimed ‘Showcase Live’, featured by the BBC, Truetube and the British Film Institute. With a cast of culturally diverse poets drawing from personal experience and examining themes from mental health to getting lost and being found, the show was at once brutally honest, dark and profoundly optimistic. The multi media show used video, music and poetry performance to further draw you into the lives and psyche of the poets, creating an unforgettable, powerful show. For me the performance highlighted one of poetry greatest assets: its ability allow people to eloquently express how they feel and make us realise that we through we live disconnected, often fragmented lives, we are not very different from each other at all. To bring unity and understanding through the power of language.

These events are absolutely invaluable in their ability to connect people, to develop voices or even just to make people see that they have a voice which is worth being heard. The Lyric Lounge will now return its region tour next year, visiting Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire and Rutland.

Lyric Lounge will also be returning for a day, Thursday the 7th October as part of the excellent Everybody’s Reading festival in Leicester, and I do hope you can make it over. For more information please see here.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Stories and Ideas

Just where do writers draw their ideas and inspiration? And how do these ideas translate themselves into memorable stories, poems and novels?

I think the answer is always, ultimately, a personal one, and so I will answer it personally. For me writing is an expression and exploration of the self. When I am writing anything that has happened to me is open to be used for inspiration, using a healthy dose of imagination to weave the ideas, experiences and thoughts together to form a story or longer narrative. I draw on my own experiences and I then reimagine them, recreate them and allow myself sufficient distance so I can write about them with fresh eyes to make the most out of the story I am trying to tell. This is not to say that I write autobiographical stories, my characters and events are fictional; however there will be an essence of my self, often manifested in my style of writing, that will ring true throughout all my work.

I’m a firm believer in the importance of stories. They help us understand and make sense of the world around us, and our place in that world. Throughout history it has been stories that have formed the basis of our learning and helped us grow intellectually and spiritually. Stories have the incredible power to take us away from our current stresses and strains and transport us to a place where we can escape the mundanity of life. And they also allow us to draw understanding from events that can often feel too random or colossal for us to comprehend when they happen in reality.

For me a good story will often help me put my own life into context, and it will stay with me, a true friend for life. I feel that a memorable story will have the strength to be honest and key into the thoughts and emotions that make us truly human, fallible and able to make and learn from our mistakes. I also feel that the process of writing is deathly honest. Writers need to be honest with themselves and their stories in order to explore and fully understand what their characters are feeling. In order to be true to ones story, one must first be true to oneself.
Stories sustain the spirit, and the very process of writing stories can be expressive, therapeutic and deeply enjoyable. Nevertheless, during the writing process it’s well documented that many people suffer from a conflict with their internal editor, that voice that questions the validity of your ideas and your ability to express them in the manner that you envisioned. It is important for writers to overcome their fear of failure in order to progress with the story they are trying to tell. As the saying goes: an idea that exists and is put into action is more important than an idea that exists only as an idea. And this I think is the challenge for all writers, to turn ideas into stories that stretch our world, to present us with new perspectives and different ways of seeing.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Round Up

Life has had the happy momentum of being incredibly busy of late, but I thought it was about time I collated some of my news into an easy to digest blog post. Like any concise news bulletin, here are some of the highlights of what has been going on:

Recently I performed at the weird and wonderful Macmillian fundraising event, Cogmachine, organized by some very special people in Derby. The event raised and impressive £422.11 and hosted such amazing artists, musicians and spoken word performers as Jo Lewis, The Super Normals, Mo Pickering, Simon Heywood and the utterly unique and mesmerizing Thomas Truax. For more information on the event please see Ms Mischeif’s blog, here.

I have had stories and poems published here, here and here.

I volunteered at Derby’s very own festival for alternative fiction, Alt. Fiction.
Focusing on Horror, Fantasy, Sci-Fi and Speculative Fiction, Alt. fiction was a fantastically organized event hosting many eminent writers, publishers and agents of the varied and popular genres. With an array of entertaining and informative panels, films, workshops and discussions for participants of all levels, the event was a true treasure trove of literary delights. Here I had the honor of seeing Robert Shearman perform on of his stories from his fabulous collection ‘Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical’. He was a fantastic reader, performing a lengthy and captivating story from memory, enchanting the audience and earning a place as one of my favorite writers.

I strongly recommend anyone who is interested in literature and wants to get more involved to either attend or volunteer at such events. There is so much information to be gleaned, contacts and new friends to be made and it is very interesting to experience the other side to how a literary event is run. Much like performing in a play, you form a bond with your fellow volunteers, and feel a certain sense of loss when the event is over. Volunteering is a great way to channel your passion and interest in literature and to become further involved in the industry, and you might even be privileged to participate in some of the event for free!

During the weekend of Alt. Fiction, a very different, but no less important literature event, the Lyric Lounge was also taking place in Derby. I attended the Sunday event at Deda and was delighted to see the venue transformed into a very well attended friendly and accessible participation space for spoken word, poetry and music. The day also featured Polarbear’s new innovative spoken word film/show ‘Return’, performers such as Sureshot and Mellow Baku, and the specially commissioned and very moving new showcase ‘Between the Laughter and the Tears’ by Joe Coghlan and Jo ‘Spice’ Blackwood, directed by Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze. An amazing event, and perfect end to what was a weekend filled with wonderful words.

And last but not least I was recently interviewed on the first of a new radio show for all literature lovers, The Reading Room. The show was aired on Sunday morning, for which I was privileged to be featured as a special guest, and I was able to promote the wonderful spoken word, music and writing collective, Hello Hubmarine, which I am involved in and very passionate about. I read a short spoken word piece which I performed with Hello Hub last year as part of our set at the Phrased and Confused tent at Summer Sundae and also discuss the upcoming Hello Hubmarine website. I’ll post the podcast of the show up here as soon as it is available.

Exciting times indeed, just watch this space!

Friday, 23 April 2010

A Pair of Star Crossed Lovers

Recently I’ve been immersed in the world of ‘Such Tweet Sorrow’, a modern, multi-platform interpretation of Romeo and Juliet by The Royal Shakespeare Company. Using six actors to play key characters in the play, the story unfolds in real time on the social networking site, Twitter. The project presents viewers not only with the omnipresent ability to follow events as they happen, but also the gift of being able to interact with the characters, creating a truly multi-usery and addictive take on a much loved tale.

While on some levels ‘Such Tweet’ has been criticised for changing an untouchable literary classic, for me the story has been given a fresh spirit to what I once perceived as a rather dated and overdone play. I find it fascinating how the personality of the characters comes alive using only 140 characters per tweet. They also use Twitter to post pictures and YouTube videos of themselves and Juliet has gone as far as to create a Facebook event for her sixteenth birthday party tonight. And if you’re a Call of Duty fan you could even be lucky enough to play with Romeo online as he’s currently grounded for getting into fisty-cuffs with Tybalt.

The only thing that worries me about this project is the level of emotional involvement myself and many many other people are feeling towards the characters. Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy, and soon I will have to say goodbye to characters which I have invested time and care over. Much like the ending of a good novel, I am going to have to prepare myself for a certain feeling of loss and bereavement. But why do we read on when we know there’s darkness and hurt around the corner? I think there is a link between good literature and healing, a cathartic way of purging the emotions in stories that stand the test of time and make us feel human. ‘Such Tweet’ is happening over 5 weeks and I urge you to follow them, have a look and even get involved by replying back. I only hope that this paves the way for further projects in the future of a similar nature, of exploring how technology can enhance much loved classics and bring them to different audiences around the world.

To follow 'Such Tweet' and more information click here

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

A Word on Word!

‘Word!’ is the longest running poetry and spoken word night in the East Midlands. Hosted at The Y Theatre in Leicester, a gorgeous venue with large round tables, red velvet chairs and bursting with a palpable creative atmosphere, Word! offers a much needed platform for poets and spoken word artists. For most of the evening it is ran as a highly organised open mic night, with slots available to any artist who gets to the venue and puts their name down by 7 that evening. Such a format gives the audience the chance to delve into different approaches and styles of writing that reading privately could never offer. Word! is then concluded with a booked headline act, and in the past has hosted such poets as Rob Gee, Joolz Denby, Malika Booker, Steve Rooney and Lucy English to name but a few.

Last night, in partnership with Staple Magazine, Word! delighted the audience with the majestic Mimi Khalvati, the founder of The Poetry School and a truly inspiring poet. She has published 6 collections of poetry with Carcanet Press. Her most recent book, The Meanest Flower, was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, a Financial Times Book of the Year, and also Short-listed for the TS Eliot Prize. Mimi was mesmerising, and won the hearts of the audience not only with her wonderful poetry but also her kind and gentile personality, instantly putting everyone at ease and taking us on inspiring journey through her life via the medium of poetry. I came away from Word! feeling invigorated and bursting with new ideas thanks to the magic of good poetry.

For more information on Word! see here http://www.myspace.com/wordleicester

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Crab Sticks

Grey waves of clouds lap though the sky and shield the summer sun. The wind tickles my hair as I watch you lift my brother, Michael, so he can aim at the targets with the pellet gun. Our fortnightly outings have become a succession of enforced fun activities, the park, the beach, the cinema. Anything to keep us occupied and away from your pristine Ikea clad home. You’ve yet to explain to Michael why your girlfriend’s tummy is getting fat, or why her patience with us is now unbearably thin. He’s too young to understand, but I’m not.

Michael hits the target, the pellet brushes the tin with a loud clang and both you and the stall owner cheer. I turn away, the red and white crabstick now warm in my hand. Attributing my silence as a by-product of my ‘funny age’, you had bought the seaside treat to tease a smile from me. In your eyes, I’ve been at a funny age all my life; your oldest child and a tepid experiment with parenthood until your anticipated son was born. I weave in and out of the crowd, walk over to the pier railings and rest my hands over the top. Above me seagulls spin summersaults in the sky, call to each other and swoop down in search of food. The sea stretches its vast body to the horizon, glinting silver as it catches the sunlight. I inhale and consume the sea air deep into my body.

I bite down on the crabstick and salty lines of processed fish fill my mouth. I remember how you used to buy me the treat in Asda, when I was very small as a reward for good behaviour. You would ruffle my hair and make jovial remarks about not telling mum for fear of spoiling my appetite, but it never did. It was just a little secret you and I shared, something just for us. I hear you calling my name and I walk over to you, remembering to wear a smile.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Audio Delights

Audio books have long been a passion of mine, and a form of reading I implore all literature lovers to try. While reading books generally can be quite a personal pleasure, audio books can be shared with other people, much like watching a film together. They promote multitasking, and can be enjoyed while on the move, like shopping or walking the dog. I truly believe they’re a great way of catching up on the books you’ve always wanted to read, but never found the time or for some reason or other, the inclination.

As much as I love these treats of for my ears, audio books are not without their downside. While a good reader can bring a narrative alive, adding nuance and texture to a story, a bad reader, (one that you don’t connect with or has an annoying voice, etc) can murder a good story slowly and make you lose interest in the plot, or compassion for the characters. Unlike the palpable nature of books, where you’re able to flick through the narrative at leisure, refreshing yourself on an event which may have occurred 100 pages ago, with an audio book such omnipotent power is harder to exert for fear of losing you current place. From a writers perspective, audio can be fantastic since it forces the listener to consume to every word that has been painstakingly written, nevertheless if the listener lets their mind wander while listening to a story they run the risk of losing some vital information. And finally if a story challenges writing convections like structure, the true effect can be lost in the listening of the narrative as the reader is not able to envision the text as it was originally intended.

Through my years of listening to audio I have learnt that it is important to choose the book I listen to wisely. If the author plays with time lines, structure or employs interesting postmodernist techniques to their story I will generally read the book rather than listen. There is still something very precious and intimate for me about reading a book, but listening to audio presents me with the opportunity to indulge in my passion of literature while still continuing with the day to day running of my life.

Currently I’m listening to Ian McEwan’s new novel, ‘Solar’. A true delight: his clever turn of phrase, wry and human observations bring glimpses of sunshine on the grey English day. Go on, have a listen.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Too Slow To Catch A Cold

Vest splattered with yesterday’s dinner, he shuffles to the front of the queue. His ears deaf to the mutters of his fellow customers, his eyes blind to their looks of disgust.

“Bread and beans.” He slurs, spittle catching on the sales assistants uniform as she scans in the items. “That’s all you need. Bread and beans.”

His hands tremble as he hands her his money. The coins are moist with sweat and she recoils, granting him a brief, composed nod. As he wobbles away all eyes follow him, the stench of pity thick in the air. Her next customer, a short bald man in a charcoal suit, winks jovially at her. “Too slow to catch a cold, that one, eh?”

The doors slide closed behind him, shutting out the laughter trickling from the tills. A smile creases his face and he straightens his back. He walks home, his limp morphing into the purposeful stride of a man who has fought and won; his mask of alcoholism an easy price for free housing and benefits. The plastic bag, heavy with lager, swings in his hands and V’s of birds fly across the sky.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Stroke Signals

Immobilized, she tries to move her arms, her legs, her toes. But the messages sent from the synapses in her brain to her body are jumbled; somewhere the current is broken. Her eyes, at least, retain their motion, and flash around the kitchen in search of a phone, or a stool to pull herself up with. In the prismatic claws of paralysis, however, such an object’s functionality would be rendered useless, an ironic taunt to her physical state. Air hisses out though her clenched teeth and though she attempts to call for help, her words transpose into the nonsensical vowel sounds of a baby and are not her own.

Matthew’s words pierce through her ensuing panic. Living alone is not a viable option for someone of her age now. There are risks that became dangers if ignored. True to her stubborn nature, she dismissed the idea without due consideration. “People go into those places to wait to die.” She had told him, “I’m sorry darling but I wont do that to myself. You don’t have to worry about me. I’m fit as a fiddle.” Now, with the curse of hindsight, it seems age is the only battle she was doomed to lose.

Her thoughts whirl as if caught in a maelstrom. She had had no chest pains, no tingling down her arms. But if not a heart attack, what else? An explosion in her brain, like a firecracker lighting the sky, was her only indicator, and in the grips of panic she couldn’t decipher its meaning. Skimbleshanks, her gargantuan ginger cat strutted into the kitchen and jumped on to the worktop. Her eyes follow his movements as the cat sniffs at the jug of milk and then bats it with a fat paw. A waterfall of white gushes over the counter drips on her face with metronomic rhythm. She closes her eyes and in her mind she began to scream.

On Writing

For a long time I prescribed to the notion that you’re not a writer unless you write every day. You need to find the time and space to write, even if that means getting up an hour earlier than you would normally, just so you can sit at your desk and let the ethereal words ‘flow through you’. And I tried. I really did try. But after a while I realised that many of the words I’d forced myself to write were tosh. They were not up to the standard and calibre that I knew I was capable of achieving. I was writing for the sake of it, to keep the demons at bay, rather than to represent my particular way of seeing. It was arts for arts sake, and inevitably it was unsustainable.

When I look back to the things I have written recently, the pieces that have weight, meaning and worth, they have all been stories that have come naturally to me. Pieces which I have had the smallest inkling of an idea for, and have invariably ‘written themselves’. I used to hate it when a writer would talk about how pieces write themselves, as if the act of writing is effortless and we are just the conduit for a higher power. However, I can now see there is some element of truth in that mantra. The good stories I write have all developed from the tiniest seed of an idea, which has grown into something much larger as I write it. For me, writing is a very natural and intuitive process, and I find forced creativity doesn’t produce the work that I am proud of. Work that rings with an element of self and truth. Therefore I’m trying to learn to keep my demons at bay, and be comfortable with myself as a writer, by understanding which ideas are the sparks that will grow into something bigger. I don’t want to simply write for the sake of writing, I want to produce worthwhile work. However I also recognise that I need to be better at not feeling bad when I have no such project or story on the go, for one will inevitably present itself. Well, that’s the hope at least.

At the moment, as I have no driving project propelling me forward, I have taken to editing snippets of free writing pieces I have done in the past, in the hope of creating a collection of complete pieces. In this way I hope to clear my head of the old, half finished ideas and spiritually make way for the new. Some of them may not be great, but I’d rather get them up to a certain level and then leave them, than have a mind full of muddled, segmented stories. That’s the theory anyway.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Reviewing the Reviews

In 2008 for my Creative Writing dissertation, I conducted a 6-month case study on the female author’s place in the book review pages. Now, spurred on by a recent article in this issue of Mslexia magazine, I have decided to revisit my findings, baring in mind their recent research.

In the past, many female writers have been forced to adopt male pseudonyms in order to have their work taken seriously by the literary establishment and receive a ‘fair’ book review. With the rise of first, second and third-wave feminism, women writers have now come a long way from the constraints forced upon the 19th century female novelists such as George Eliot. But, can it now be said that women writers have finally managed to penetrate the glass ceiling and reach a state of equality within today’s literary world? And if not, what does this reveal about both the current attitudes towards female authors and publishing and reading trends in today’s market?

With the current market flooded with new and established writers, book reviews are one of the few methods available that identifies a book of significance to readers. And of all the different types of reviews, the newspaper book pages are regarded as the most influential in terms of sales as they reach the widest audience. It is therefore crucial that writers are treated without prejudice within these pages and receive a fair book review. Admittedly a review does not necessarily have to be a favourable one to be recognised fair, though ideally, it should be honest, constructive and free from discrimination.

There has been a lot of interesting research on women’s place in the book review pages over the years. In 1985 the group Women In Publishing completed an extensive study into this subject and found that the broadsheets, including the Times, the Guardian and the Mail on Sunday, were not only the most discriminative against women regarding the length of reviews, but they also showed a clear preference towards the male author. WIP also discovered that although women write and read more fiction than men, female authors actually received far fewer book reviews than male authors. For example, in 1985 the book pages of the Guardian, a newspaper that has always claimed to promote true journalistic standards of objectivity, reviewed on average only 19.54 per cent of women’s writing, compared to 75.86 per cent of fiction written by men.

However, WIP’s research was conducted over twenty years ago. So, what can now be said of more recent findings on women writers in our modern literary world? In 1999 writer Debbie Taylor founded a woman’s writing magazine called ‘Mslexia’, which focuses on practical and creative issues connected to women and writing. In an article written for the first issue entitled ‘Three Cures for Mslexia’ Taylor documents extensive research, which identified the modern female writer’s position in the literary market. Taylor discovered that in Autumn 1998 women writers received 32 per cent of the book reviews printed, whereas male writers received a much higher proportion of 68 per cent.

My own research, focusing solely on The Guardian’s book pages, revealed that in the Spring and Summer of 2007 male authors received approximately 64.3 per cent of the reviews printed, with women just receiving 35.7 per cent. Compared with Mslexia’s findings in the last ten years, the female author’s place in the review pages has only improved by approximately 3 per cent. Could this preference towards male authors in the newspaper review sections merely reflect a world in which women publish fewer books, or does it point to a pervasive, unconscious sexism in how these books are chosen for review or even how they are marketed and classified into genres?

Ironically, research suggests that women still write, read and indeed borrow significantly more fiction than men: the current statistic widely quoted by booksellers is that 60 per cent of all novels published are written by women. The discrepancy between how much work is published by women, and how much is actually reviewed may stem from the subjects that women typically write about. Men and women have different reading and writing preferences and women’s writing is often typecast under the headings of ‘chick–lit’, ‘mum–lit’ or the ‘domestic’ novel. Perhaps it’s because men’s genre writing is broken down into crime/adventure/S.A.S – it’s not called ‘men’s writing’ yet, and genre writing for women is called: ‘women’s writing’. But by categorizing different novels under the same headings, women’s writing does not receive as much (if any) coverage in the press as male orientated genres such as crime fiction. The domestic experiences are often perceived as pertaining only to women, whereas the experiences of men are supposedly universal. While, admittedly, many women do write ‘chick–lit’ and popular fiction, there is a sense that many novels written by women who challenge set stereotypes are often misunderstood or misclassified.

But by not reviewing women’s writing as much as men’s, the literary establishment could be construed as signifying that the experiences of women are not as valid or important as men’s experiences. For if women’s writing is defined as inferior, then women’s experiences are automatically denigrated as well. A discrimination against women’s writing in the literary industry may not even be a conscious one, however it is still as damaging if women’s experiences are simply not seen, and particularly when women’s work is not represented adequately in the book review pages. Literary editors may claim that their book pages reflect the tastes and demands of society, but by producing book pages that are biased against women, whether consciously or unconsciously, the literary establishment is simply perpetuating existing prejudices and subtly shaping people’s perceptions of reality. The problem may fundamentally lie in the way that women’s work is marketed, however, literary editors are in a unique position of responsibility to deal with the world of ideas, and are best placed to influence changes in attitudes.

What can we, as readers, do to combat this problem? Interestingly, in our technology rich age, there are many other mediums readily available for us to review books that we have recently read. As Jane Mackenzie points out in Myslexia, the literary pages are not the only door into the realm of books and ideas. There are thousands of book groups, review sites and discussion groups taking place now, and the more women try their hand at reviewing, the more chance we have of resetting the balance in the book reviewing world. There remains a great need for the promotion of women’s writing, an awareness and awakening of consciousness for us all to set the numbers straight.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

This week, I have been mostly reading: Enduring Love by Ian McEwan

Beginning with the tragic death of an unknown man in a ballooning accident, Enduring Love captures the spiralling events which proceed this, following Joe as he is led astray from his love, Clarissa, by a mentally deranged stalker Parry. In response to Parry’s unwelcome love towards him, Joe becomes obsessed with his antagonist and is increasingly incensed as the people around his fail to recognise the deep threat that Parry poses to his life. Enduring love explores how tragedy can connect, us, shape us and change our lives irrevocably. McEwan’s prose is thought provoking, involving and intelligent, with metafictional reference to the nature of narrative and how we understand and interpret the world around us; defiantly one of the best novels I have read in a long time.

Now…what to read next?