I want to heartily recommend Tess Jolly. Not only is she an amazing poet but she is also a fabulous proof reader. I asked Tess to proof a few of my short fictions which I am tentatively starting to assemble into a collection.
She found a fair amount to fix: including a regrettable promiscuity with commas and the odd toe-curling typo (including the classic patios when I meant patois) the odd tautology and so on. It was great to feel the MS was now more watertight.
Little bad habits, invisible to you as the perpetrator, being made suddenly visible was a little like having a writing masterclass. I fully intend to use Tess’ eagle eyes on my prose projects from now on. I can wholeheartedly recommend her.
Few moments in life are like popping open a box of books you happen to have written. More accurately I should say written by my alter ego Skelton Yawngrave III. Skelton was wildly pleased with himself. Though cheerful, I remain cautiously optimistic.
Properly armed with my 322 page book, I am particularly looking forward to continuing my school visits. I was very excited and encouraged by the children’s response at two schools in Sussex, St Giles school in Horsted Keynes, and Bolney School, in Bolney. I have forthcoming visits to St Marks school next week, and Balcome School.
I’ve been really enjoying representing Skelton, and reading sections of the book. In my visits so far I have discussed unfairness and justice, prejudice and tolerance. We have looking hard at the editing process. The children were fascinated to hear how many drafts the book went through, and that I employed professional editor Charlotte Norman to review and copy edit the text.
I discuss the use of a pseudonym, and ask children what identity they might choose, and what sort of writing they might do. This often elicits interesting answers as the children suddenly discover they might have their own alter ego waiting to express itself. One child, however, said he would write about polar exploration and his pen name would be I.C. Waters which made me laugh.
I early video YouTube experiments with a talking skeleton and visualisations of the characters by my mother Margaret Hamlin to show how I began to develop the characters. My mother’s pictures get oohs! of amazement when I produce them — which gives me a bit of a Romesh Ranganathan’s mother moment.
Having made a living as a writer for at least twenty five years, and having poems and prose published from the age of 22, this is the first time I have self-published a story. In 2020 I find this carries little stigma any more. In a time when many publishers and agents are so risk averse the idea of just getting on with it is very refreshing. I have never been much good at waiting for permission before I start something creative, so doing it this way fits unapologetically with who I am. I can tell you that whenever a child enthuses about Magnificent Grace, it is an absolute vindication.
My friend Janet Summerton died on October 1st at the age of 79. I was heavily involved in her care during her last two months, and that of her husband Ken who survives her. Janet was a lateral thinking champion of the crafts and craft makers – and a benign influence on a generation of arts managers in the UK. There are plans to celebrate her life and work next year. My own relationship with her, however, started when I was her lodger in my twenties. For the next thirty years she was a wise and affectionate aunt-like figure to me. What I learned from her is immeasurable, introducing me right away to the idea of having a portfolio career and, perhaps most helpfully, she stopped me being a genius.
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Shortly after Janet died I attended a long-booked Writers & Artists ‘How to hook an agent’ day course for writers of Children’s and YA fiction, at Bloomsbury Publishing up in Bedford Square. The agents I heard from were Davinia Andrew-Lynch, Julia Churchill, and Ben Illis, all of whom were generous with their advice, and refreshingly normal and human. Lurking in Bloomsbury’s maze-like offices I kept imagining all the celebrated writers who must have visited there. My fellow attendees were a fascinating lot too, some had flown in from other countries. In the afternoon we all had ten minutes face-to-face with an agent. Pitching is part of what I have done for a living for the last twenty years or so, so the fact I made such an arse of myself was disappointing. Despite this, Ben Illis the agent I spoke to gave me excellent advice. I am acting on it.
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I have been reading short stories recently, after buying two collections from writer friends, both published by Cultured Llama.
In Jeremy Page’s London Calling and Other Stories. I particularly enjoyed the novela-length title story London Calling. Its protagonist, a University drop-out called Eustace Tutt, is brilliantly drawn, and was for me like meeting someone from my own past. Sadly, my past did not feature sharing a squat with two German girls with a propensity for nudity. Jeremy’s stories are funny, touching and very human. I devoured the collection.
Unusual Places by Louise Tondeur‘s style is fascinating, she has an alien’s eye for detail, and observations are made without the expected filters and hierarchies of importance. Louise is writing a crime novel at the moment, and I can’t help thinking the engaging oddness of her characters and description would make her foray into crime something to be greatly anticipated.
My other ‘discovery’ is Robert Aickman, a writer of what he called ‘strange Stories’, who died in 1981. I bought a new collection of his called Compulsory Games full of hauntingly weird stories. The story called No Time Is Passing, is one of the most disturbing and brilliant things I have ever read. It concerns a man who goes out into his back garden in West London and discovers a river at the end of it. I found myself in the middle of the night worrying if I was going mad. I had been obsessing about the story lying awake and wide-eyed for hours. The way Aickman nudges up the weird every few sentences is just incredible. Dreamlike is a word that is overused continually, but Aickman’s stories are properly nightmarish, while rarely resorting to horror tropes.
Seven items from the imaginary news desk at Kenny Towers.
Anice, not to mention speedy, review of TRUTHS A Telltale Press Anthology in London Grip. If you’d like to buy a copy, simply get in touch with me through this site. In other poetry news, I have a poem called Commuted on the Amaryllis site, and another War Diary in 1/72 scale accepted by Arachne Press anthology provisionally called An Outbreak of Peace.
Two books of poetry are currently lighting up my life. Eleni Vakalo, Before Lyricism, translated by Karen Emmerich, which drips with timeless vitality and sheer Greekness which I love. One day I must post more about the riches of Greek poetry since Cavafy. And Janet Sutherland‘s Bone Monkey, which was recommended to me by my poet pal Charlotte — I have the sense in reading Janet’s poems that she sees the world a bit like I do, except she has words for what I’ve not been able to say, so for me her poems are revelatory. I am just about to order her other two books now. Some writers make you fall in love with reading all over again, and Vakalo and Sutherland are two of those.
I think I have started a new play, but I don’t want to hex myself by saying more. It seems to want to be another black comedy.
I have lost count of the number of agents I’ve approached with my children’s book. Not a glimmer so far, and the majority are so swamped they simply don’t reply. As the book has been read to actual schoolchildren who have lapped it up, clearly lateral thinking and persistence must now be deployed (after a brief spell of shaking my fist at the indifferent gods of publishing).
In the other part of my double life as a creative, I found out a concept I’d done with my pals in the Paris agency, Life Animal Health, about the animal disease rinderpest, has won a prize in the French Empreintes awards.
I have been learning how to make stained glass windows. My class on a short hiatus before restarting. The design part I find fairly easy, but the practical stuff I find a bit of a ‘pane’. Cutting different thicknesses and types of lead (I love the name of one – ‘wide heart lead’), cutting glass, sometimes overlaying two lots of glass one on the other, grinding glass, soldering (I’d never done this before), and generally getting my finicky hands dirty, have all challenged me. I love it though. My design was quite complicated, so despite working on it for weeks every Friday morning, it is still not finished. The tutor, Ben Conti, a very patient and skilled man and has not let me compromise my vision. My fellow students all lovely. I’m planning a bench at home.
Below… A workbench snap a few weeks ago. Ben seems to think it will be done one day, but stained glass is, for me, a work of glacial progress…. But once the mammoths have thawed out, it could look nice all buffed up and completed.
Gillian Clarke’s remarks on the pamphlet flap for Jessica Mookherjee’s Telltale Press pamphlet The Swellare spot on. Among them she says Jess’s poems are ‘Bold, fiery, truthful, they tell an original story with power’.
Other than reading The Swell at a fairly late stage before publication, I had little to do with Jess’s pamphlet. Sarah Barnsley, who along with Robin Houghton, helped Jess edit The Swell said that, in the process of finalising the selection, Jess had a whole sheaf of possible replacements for each poem. Amazingly prolific at the moment, Jess is already well on her way to forming a first full collection, and her work is frequently cropping up in many magazines. The reason is that they are fabulous.
The first poem of the The Swell pamphlet, ‘Snapshot’ depicts the loss of a mother’s attention away from the little girl ‘I’ of the poem. ‘I passed on my birthright to all those unborn/ boys,’ the mother tragedy spills into the poem, she becomes a person who needs her ‘worried forehead’ soothed, needs to be watched over:
Stood behind my mother as she prayed at the front door, led her to the kitchen, made sure she looked at the babies.
but finally we are left with an image of childhood abandonment, how the absence of attention leaves its mark with an image of neglect:
There is no photograph of me climbing the stairs two at a time, no evidence that I tried not to slip and break my neck.
One thing I love about Jess’s work is the balance between such nuance, and unabashed boldness. In the poem ‘Red’:
The red curtains in my mother’s house looked like someone had shot her.
A colour is shown as a symbol for domestic disagreement, and disappointment:
I tell you not to wear that that red shirt, it doesn’t flatter. There’s blood in the bathroom again, this month.
The pamphlet is fraught with thwarted hopes and expectations, and its arena is the female body. We glimpse the weight of expectation on women to have sons, to create families, to select the right partner. I find the poem ‘Mother’s Day’ to be eloquent about assigned roles. The poem opens, with typical boldness, describing a delivery of flowers:
Delivered like unwanted children, I didn’t put them into water.
I find a passion and rebellion in The Swell. I can’t recommend it enough. And if you’d like to hear Jess’s next reading, at the Telltale Press & Friends reading in Lewes with a fine array of poets. These include Judy Brown, whose book Crowd Sensationsis becoming one of my favourites of recent times, and will write about it on here soon. It’s a great opportunity to hear Telltale’s Siegfried Baber up from Bath, and Brighton’s own Michaela Ridgway showcase their work too.
I have been a bit AWOL from cyberspace this summer. A blissful two weeks in the south of France with my wife. I had been using Duolingo to try to refresh my French before I went. Not that the French I was trying to refresh was any good in the first place. However I tried to speak to people. Sometimes it worked, other times I would launch my français and watch people flinch as if in physical pain. New for me was attempting to read poetry in French. It helps if you are fairly familiar with the poetry in translation. So I am re-reading Léopold Sédar Senghor and Aimé Césaire, poets who were founders of Négritude in 1930s France. It has been a struggle and I must keep referring to translations for words I don’t get. But I’m getting a better feel for the poems, and it’s an improving experience.
Returning from France, my alter ego Peter Kenny the Writer Ltd has been hard at it, with two pitches won, and clients with whom I hope some work to be proud of is possible.
New play to be staged this December – We Three Kings
As for the plays, A Glass of Nothing will be staged again by Brighton Blonde Productions this December at the Marlborough Theatre, and old stomping ground for me and Beth Symons. More ‘deets’ here soon.
The show will be of two plays: a slightly tightened A Glass of Nothing, (fresh from its Brighton Fringe success) plus a new short play We Three Kings that I am writing now. Also a comedy, in an edgy, existential, post modern kind of way. Loads of laughs in it I hope.
Poets and poetry
I’m having the dissonant experience of writing what I think of as some of my best work, but going through a spate of rejections. To quote Wordsworth ‘The poet, gentle creature as he is…’ [no female poets obvs.] ‘… Hath, like the Lover, his unruly times; His fits when he is neither sick nor well, Though no distress be near him but his own Unmanageable thoughts.’ A glut of rejections and I get if not quite unmanageable thoughts, certainly the odd gloom.
Yay! Telltale Press will be represented at the Free Verse Poetry Book Fair this weekend. Come to our stand say howdy to Robin Houghton, Siegfried Baber, Sarah Barnsley and myself. We’ll be armed with revolutionary pamphlets and plenty of chat. Plus you have to grab hold of Sarah Barnsley’s spanking new ‘The Fire Station’ as is it is released into the wild for the first time.
I had a blast last year there as an attendee, sloping about with Robin and feeling the poetry buzz – amazing publications, elegant design, live readings and much bumping into old friends. I feel proud that just one year later Telltale is now a robust little press able to take its place at the fair too. See you there!