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:



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.


At its most acute,
she pictured an orb,

in its snare of rib.

It eased to the pressure
of a handstand,

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.