The mentoring life

Throughout all my varied experiences of teaching creative writing, I always knew I liked giving feedback. To look closely at someone’s work and be able to give constructive, critical advice enabling a poet to move their work forward is incredibly rewarding.  I don’t set about telling my mentees what to write, or how to write it. The mentor and mentee instead enter a conversation about the work. From that conversation come so many things: insight into the writing process, themes in the work that are starting to make themselves clear, how to free a poem if that poem is stuck.  We discuss wider reading and recommend texts to each other. There is focus on the contemporary poetry scene. I consider long and hard where my mentees might want to submit their work.

I offer ‘sessions’ looking at batches of poems over a short or extended period of time.  With each session, mentees get extensive written feedback from me, the time to submit rewrites and then a Skype call to discuss rewrites and any questions they may have. The Skype contact really cements the mentor/mentee relationship, especially if I’m working with that poet for several months.  Getting to know the writer a little helps me to understand their work more.  Providing an online mentoring service has enabled me to work with poets, regardless of their location. My mentees have come mostly from the UK but also Germany and China.

I’ve worked with a variety of writers, at different points in their careers as poets. Some are at the exciting, early stages of getting published.  I also work with established voices, poets who have published books, and my role is to edit a forthcoming collection.  I want to continue to build my reputation as a mentor. I keep in touch with all the poets I have worked with, on a regular basis. Many of them have provided great testimonials for my teaching page of this blog, for which I am very grateful. It has been wonderful to see them thrive.  They’ve all worked so hard and achieved great things, so I thought I’d focus on each writer here, in order that the poetry world can see what they’re up to:

LIZ HALL

In 2014, artist and performer Liz Hall was beginning work on her Arts Council funded performance, ‘This New Land She Has Reached’ focussing on her experiences of being a mother to a young woman with Down’s Syndrome. Hannah, who was 28, performed with her in the piece, which involved the spoken word, projection and movement.When Liz approached me the project was still in development.  Liz wanted some creative direction for both the written and performance aspects of the piece.  She worked with a director regarding the performance, and with me regarding the spoken words.  I loved working with her.  I’ve never forgotten the poems. Her writing was bold and moving and Liz was feisty.  She often disputed some of my suggested edits, and I loved our conversations that came from that.  The finished performance of  ‘This New Land She Has Reached’ was very well received.  An artist and performer based in Sheffield, Liz blurs the boundaries between visual art, poetry and performance. She has an MA in Fine Art and has been shortlisted for the Bridport Poetry Prize and the Pighog Pamphlet competition. She is now working on a series of poems extending her interest in female familial relationships that she also intends to take through to a future performance. Find out more at: www.lizhall.co.uk

VICTORIA KENNEFICK

Victoria is a bit of a force in poetry.  Dynamic, knowledgeable, engaged in the contemporary poetry community, her work is imaginative, elegant and poignant. It was a pleasure to work with her over a period of six months, seeing her become sure of her voice, and the poems she was writing.  Victoria Kennefick’s poetry pamphlet, White Whale, (Southword Editions, 2015), won the Munster Literature Centre Fool for Poetry Chapbook Competition and the Saboteur Award for Best Poetry Chapook. Her work has appeared in Poetry, Prelude, Poetry News, The Irish Times, Poetry Ireland Review, The Stinging Fly, Ambit, Copper Nickel and elsewhere. She is a recipient of a Next Generation Bursary from the Arts Council of Ireland and most recently her poems have featured on RTÉ Lyric FM’s Read Victoria’s poems: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/victoria-kennefick

 JO BURNS

Jo came to me at the start of 2017, with a manuscript for a prospective pamphlet. We ended up working on over 70 poems together.  I know her work well, and I’ve said before that to read Jo’s work is to feel exhilarated and enthralled. Incredibly easy to work with, wise and astute about her own creative process, Jo is an intelligent, important new voice.  I’ve enjoyed watching her achieve much success since we met.  Jo lives in Germany. Her poetry has been published widely in journals such as Acumen, Oxford Poetry, The Stinging Fly, Southword, Popshots, The Tangerine and Magma. She won the McClure Poetry Prize at the Irish Writers Festivalin Los Gatos, CA and the Magma Judges Prize Poetry Competition 2018. Her pamphlet Circling for Gods was published by Eyewear Publishing in March 2018. Turas Press will publish her first full-length collection, White Horses, in November 2018. Helena Nelson’s review of Circling for Godscan be read here: https://www.sphinxreview.co.uk/index.php/688-jo-burns-circling-for-gods

 SIMON COSTELLO

Simon approached me at the beginning of 2018.  Beginning to get published, he was considering applying for a place on a Creative Writing MA but wanted to hone his work before he applied.  From his first submission, I was impressed by Simon’s obvious skill and creative energy. I always sensed that Simon really enjoyed writing.  He’s conscientious and well-read, good traits in any writer. We worked together for 8 months.  In that time Simon matured as a poet, gaining conviction about what he was writing and how.  Simon’s poems are published in Rattle, The Stinging Fly, And Other Poems, The Galway Review and elsewhere. In 2017 Simon was one of the winners of the Ekphrastic Poetry Challenge & editor’s choice for US poetry magazine Rattle. Next month he begins an MFA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. It was a high point to conclude our work together knowing he had gained that place at MMU.  https://stingingfly.org/product/summer-2018/ 

 RACHEL BOWER

I discovered Rachel’s work when co-judging The 2017 Flambard Poetry Prize. As I said in my judge’s report, her winning poems portrayed early motherhood with startling originality, exploring the natural world in new and sensual ways.  I was very taken by it.  Rachel approached me several months after the prize giving about mentoring and I’ve loved having the chance to explore her poetry further.  Rachel is a Leverhulme Research Fellow at the University of Leeds. She is the author of Moon Milk (Valley Press, 2018) and Epistolarity and World Literature, 1980-2010 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). Rachel is the editor of Verse Matters (with Helen Mort, Valley Press, 2017), and various special issues of academic journals. Rachel’s poems have been published in Stand, The Interpreter’s House, Frontier, Popshot Magazine and many other places, and broadcast on BBC radio. Her poems have won several prizes, most recently in the 2018 York Literature Festival Poetry Prize and the Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize 2017. Website: https://rachelbowerwrites.wordpress.com

WENDY FRENCH

Wendy French is an established poet.  She plays an important role as a writer working in the field of medical humanities, and for the past twenty years has worked with children and adults with mental health problems.  Wendy was Poet-in-Residence at the Macmillan Cancer Centre at University College Hospitals NHS Trust from 2014-15 and wrote a collection of poems resulting from that residency.  You can read my review of that book here. Wendy won the Hippocrates Poetry and Medicine Prize (NHS section) in 2010 and was awarded second prize in 2011.  She demonstrates great scope as a poet, with three collections, two chapbooks, and a collaborative collection, Born in the NHS, with the poet Jane Kirwan. She is co-editor of three poetry anthologies, including Fanfare, published by Second Light in 2015. Each of her collections is unique, inventive and able to address difficult subjects with grace and unsentimental restraint. Her new work skillfully explores form, language and complex personal histories.  It’s been fascinating to see how she is continuing to evolve and challenge herself as a poet. Read recent work here: https://andotherpoems.com/2018/06/22/two-poems-by-wendy-french/

NANCY MATTSON

An established poet, active on the contemporary scene, Nancy wanted me to edit the full-length manuscript of her fourth book, Vision on Platform 2 which will be published by Shoestring Press in November 2018. Nancy and I both have early collections published by Flambard Press but have got to know each other more latterly. It was a privilege to spend time on her forthcoming collection.  Nancy wanted me to look closely at sections of the manuscript, whilst considering the order of poems and the ultimate arc and focus of the book.  I loved immersing myself in this manuscript. Nancy has written a book of rich reflections on nature and love and childhood, and it is very accomplished. Nancy Mattson moved from the Canadian prairies to London in 1990. Her most recent collection, Finns and Amazons (Arrowhead Press 2012), begins with poems about early 20th century Russian women artists but moves to a search for her Finnish great-aunt who disappeared in Stalinist Russia. Nancy’s previous collections are Writing with Mercury (Flambard Press 2006) and Maria Breaks Her Silence (Coteau Books 1989; shortlisted for Canada’s Gerald Lampert Award). She co-organises Poetry in the Crypt in Islington, north London. See also http://www.poetrypf.co.uk/nancymattsonpoems.shtml

ROSEMARY APPLETON

Current mentee Rosemary Appleton lives in Suffolk. Her DPhil (St Cross College, Oxford) was on medieval women’s contributions to manuscript poetry anthologies.  At this early stage of her poetry writing career, she has already seen her poems published in Mslexia, The Fenland Reed, Spontaneity and #refugeeswelcome (an Eyewear Press anthology).  Commended in the Four Corners Poetry Competition and Highly commended in the Shepton Mallet Snowdrop Festival Poetry Competition judged by Alison Brackenbury, Rosemary is starting to enjoy competition success. Her poems are full of tender observations and sensual description. I look forward to seeing more of her work in the future. Read poems here:  https://verse.press/author/rosemary-appleton-3552037586280371894

 ELISABETH SENNITT CLOUGH

Elisabeth approached me after receiving an Arts Council grant and used some of the funds towards mentoring costs.  We are currently working on her next collection, and will soon be coming to the end of a five-month mentoring plan.  Dedicated and extremely hard working, Elisabeth has been great to work with. I had come across Elisabeth’s work before, when I taught for The Poetry School and I’ve loved seeing the bold, new direction her work is taking. As I say in my endorsement for her book, her poems dissect physical and emotional landscapes with a captivating intensity. The poems will stay with you long after reading.  Elisabeth Sennitt Clough’s pamphlet Glass (2016) won the Paper Swans inaugural pamphlet competition. It became a Poetry Society ‘Top Pick’ (2016) and was ‘Best Pamphlet Winner’ at the Saboteur Awards 2017. Her debut collection Sightings was published by Pindrop Press and won the Michael Schmidt Award. Her poems appear in the Forward Prize Anthology, The Rialto, New Welsh Review, Mslexia, Poetry Salzburg Review, Magma, Poem, Stand, and The Cannons’ Mouth. She is an alumna of the Arvon/Jerwood and the Toast Poets mentoring schemes. Her second collection At or Below Sea Level is forthcoming with Paper Swans Press and is funded by Arts Council England. Website: www.elisabethsennittclough.co.uk

ALISON BINNEY

Alison Binney is an English teacher from Cambridge who has recently created more space in her life for writing poetry. A current mentee, I really like Alison’s work. She’s skillfully economical with language, able to reveal so much in a short poem. The work is candid, clever and touching.  Alison is at that exciting stage of starting to get published, and is doing extremely well. You can find her poems in recent issues of such established journals as The North and Magma.  She has poems forthcoming in Under the Radar and The Fenland Reed. http://www.poetrybusiness.co.uk/shop/992/583/north-60

If you would like to know more about being mentored or have any questions about working with me on your poems, a full manuscript or a creative project, do get in touch: gosspoems@hotmail.co.uk

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Stealing Stories

I will write more soon, about various poetry projects in progress, but wanted to update on courses I am teaching locally, in East Anglia.  Details here of a new one, at a great venue in Colchester, starting July 1st.  Seven places remaining….

“STEALING STORIES: A short creative writing course, exploring narrative and poetry.”

The aim of this course will be to seek out the stories that come from within us, or stories we glean from others. We will explore ‘other voices’ and look at how to use these voices in your writing, paying attention to poetic language, character, narrative – pushing the creative boundaries of truth and lies. Designed to liberate the imagination using a wide variety of stimuli, and an opportunity to work in a small, attentive group, we will focus on how to entwine tales with poetry and turn them into unique pieces of creative work.

Location: The Tree Room, 12 Trinity Street, Colchester, CO1 1JN.
Time: Doors open 2pm, for refreshments. Prompt start: 2.30 – 4.30pm.
Dates: Saturday 1 July, 15 July, 29 July.
Cost: £85
Number of places: 10

If you would like to book a place, please email Rebecca for a registration form on: gosspoems@hotmail.co.uk

Pain

Pain is not a word I would use in a poem. It’s not specific enough. It’s not precise. But two months on from a bout of pleurisy, that left me feeling wretched and bewildered, I want to write about pain.

While I was ill, all I could think about was the hurt, as it moved around my upper body. To steal Jo Shapcott’s word, I was shocked by pain’s ‘mutability’. Pleuritic pain doesn’t stay in one place. It sneaks around your back and shoulders and chest. Some days you can’t walk properly, your frame crippled by a cough. Some days you can’t breathe calmly, because there’s something skulking in your ribcage, with a knife. It’s the closest I’ve come to feeling anything remotely hallucinatory, so intense was its burn.

Having never been ill before, the only pain I’ve really experienced is the pain of childbirth. But that was entirely different. It was quick and purposeful. This pain was explicitly unkind. I spent a lot of time in my sick bed, mentally trying to articulate what I was feeling.  I convinced myself I was onto something. Where was the language for pain? Of course, a quick Google later, and I discovered this to be a well-mined subject, but it made for some interesting reading.  My favourite quote came from American essayist and academic Elaine Scarry saying that “physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it”. Nothing has ever made more sense to me. But there was no way I was going through all that agony and not writing a poem about it.

The only thing I enjoyed about any of this, was the challenge of writing poems about pleurisy. All my work tries to avoid sentimentality, but with pain, it could be easy to slip into cliché. Trying to be original and believable made me really think about the words I was choosing.  Our similes for pain can be so heightened and ‘unreal’. It’s only in the past week that I haven’t woken up and not bored my husband by (yet again) stating that I felt like I inhabited the body of a ninety-year old woman. But I don’t really know what it feels like to be a ninety-year old woman. The challenge for me, came from wanting to remain ‘true’ to the experience. Or maybe I just wanted to eschew self-pity, and ask you to believe me that it really did hurt.

So my new collection, almost done, will contain a few pleurisy poems. Here’s one of them. Not quite finished.  And it still doesn’t nail the pain I felt.  As I said at a recent reading (managed the twenty minutes without coughing, thank God), I actually think the best poem would begin: ‘It’s like being in labour for thirty days, but with the baby trying to get out of your ribs……’  That’s believable for some, surely.

Pleurisy

At its most acute,
she pictured an orb,

phosphorescent,
in its snare of rib.

It eased to the pressure
of a handstand,

executed
by someone fully grown

on her chest,
and every cough

discharged small bombs
across her back.

In her most breathless
state, there was a tree –

cankerous and scratching,
malevolent in its reach

around her frame.
She wanted it uprooted,

hauled outside her body,
just to pick off the lungs

snagged amongst branches.

On reading Karen McCarthy Woolf

This is not a review. This is a short piece about spending eight hours on trains last week, getting to and from a reading, and having uninterrupted time to open several neglected books, including Karen McCarthy Woolf’s An Aviary of Small Birds.

The collection, about the poet’s stillborn son, is something I have been keen to read. For obvious reasons, some may say, and yes I was deeply curious to see how another poet and mother writes about the death of a child. By the sixth poem, and the ‘tiny white vests, unworn’ I was crying so much I had to put the book back in my bag. I was surprised to be upset. That may sound naive but I’ve got used to keeping myself together for Her Birth readings. I thought I could cope with the subject matter. Talking to poet Martin Figura once, about his performance of Whistle – a mesmerising, autobiographical piece about the death of his mother, we both agreed that keeping a boundary between how we felt about our experiences and what we revealed to the audience was essential. It would be detrimental for the audience to see us upset. He did make me laugh when he said, ‘Nobody wants to see that Rebecca.’ True.

But this time, reading An Aviary of Small Birds, I was in the audience. I did finish the book, later, at home, and at the end of it, I was thinking about the poet’s dead baby, not mine. I was immersed in McCarthy Woolf’s acute, sensory images. I was immersed in all the beauty she has been able to create. I was immersed in the water ‘…because it is a comfort,/this return to water, to the stream, to the earth;//the mindless torrent of the brook,’ (from ‘Hawk’).  It made me think of Robert Peake’s moving, elegiac pamphlet The Silence Teacher with its many watery images and scenes. I mentioned the connection between water and bereavement to Robert. ‘I suppose grief is fluid somehow’, was his response. The fluidity of McCarthy Woolf’s book carries us through her experience. Rivers ‘press, insinuate, overwhelm, insist, endure,’ and we are passengers, sometimes clinging to the sides, sometimes peering over the edge to look more closely.  There were harrowing parts:

‘Under Other requests or concerns:
hands, feet, face, hair – all must be left intact.
Brain restored to head, skin
stitched neatly and correctly.’

(from ‘The Paperwork’)

Harrowing yes, but it felt right to read them, because such experiences need to be exposed and discovered if we are to understand ‘difficult’ things. McCarthy Woolf’s poems have made me understand more about this very particular grief and its impact. There was a lot I could relate to, obviously, but the experience was so uniquely hers, the poems became illuminating. I may not have gained comfort from reading An Aviary of Small Birds, but what I did glean from its pages was knowledge.

 

Karen McCarthy Woolf will be appearing at The 2014 Aldeburgh Poetry Festival this weekend.