A new poetry collection from Mike Johnson

How my poetry collection See What I Mean? got published – Mike Johnson

Rather more than three years ago, I entered a poetry competition, focused on humorous poems for adults, run by Thynks Publications.  To my delight, I won the competition and a small anthology of the winning poems was published.  (More on the age group the winning poem relates to below.)  On receipt of the anthology and a very welcome cheque, I thought that was that, but…

Some months later, Thynks contacted me again and, to my further delight, asked to see more poems, which I was much intrigued to furnish. Thynks liked what they saw and offered to produce a small collection for their Key Stage II range.  A long wait followed, with a couple of reminders from me, but eventually See What I Mean? has appeared. The collection has a wide range of poetry, including action poems, fun poems, more thoughtful poems and my speciality visual poems (wonderful to use my PhD in semiotics imaginatively). There is also an element of teaching what poetry is in the collection, too.See what I Mean

Interestingly, the poem I submitted to Thynks adult competition I simultaneously submitted to an Irish magazine’s poems-for-children competition and exactly the same poem won that one, too! I would say that my most successful poems tend to focus on Key Stage II: this is an age-range to which I have performed many times, in schools.   Children love the chance to write their own poems, but poetry is not necessarily something which is taught well or even attractively fostered in schools and many are permanently put-off poetry early in life, which is miserable.  I would hazard that the better children’s poems (which mine aspire to be and, without flattering myself, I would say that I sometimes achieve) are suitable for adults, too. In fact, I made a decision, in the late 80s, to aim at writing good children’s poems and I have pretty much sold between five and  ten poems to professional publishers every year, since. Indeed, I have just sold eleven already published poems to Scholastic, which hearteningly confirms my original decision. One of my visual poems has been published/re-published at least seven times!

In addition, on Wednesday 24 June 2015 relating to the publication of See What I Mean?  I was interviewed on Radio Wiltshire about children’s poetry.  Anyway, See What I Mean? is now available, if you want to take a look. OU creative writing colleagues should feel free to ask me any questions about children’s and/or visual poetry via our module tutor forums.

http://www.thynkspublications.co.uk/

http://www.scholastic.co.uk/

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The Insect Rosary – a new novel from Sarah Armstrong

For the first seventeen years of my life I spent four weeks a year at my gran’s farm in Northern Ireland. I loved it, the dog and the rain and the wellies, and felt it was very much my other home, while also being very aware that I didn’t belong in lots of ways. Having returned twice as an adult, for a holiday and my gran’s funeral, I saw the many ways the farm had changed. Walls had been knocked through and extensions built. It was still a InsectRosaryFINALhappy, family home, but it wasn’t my farm any more. I became determined to freeze the place as I remembered it and began writing my novel by accessing all the memories I could. In forming these memories into a novel I had to give it a fictional structure to contain everything that was true (true to me, at least). Bluntly, I turned my mother’s family home into a dark and disturbing place. She took the news quite well.

‘All families have secrets, but Bernadette’s are more dangerous than most. On holiday in Northern Ireland in 1982, she and her older sister discover their family is involved with disappearances and murder. Thirty years later Nancy makes a disastrous return to the farm with her own family. The events of the past gradually and menacingly reveal why those sisters have not spoken to each other since that last disturbing summer together.’

My novel uses two viewpoint characters, sisters, and their stories are separated by thirty years. It is about dangerous silences and dangerous words. It was important for me to have this sense of doubling (in events, characters and time) and place has always been an important aspect of my work. Through writing about such an important part of my childhood I have remembered more about it than I thought possible. In getting it published I have realised how important it is to combine truth with fiction, but not to be tied to the truth, and the importance of being nice to your mum.

‘An atmospheric, cleverly written exploration of the intensity of sibling relationships, The Insect Rosary is chilling and evocative: a story full of dark humour, unexpected tensions and unanswered questions, leading to an unbearably tense conclusion.’ Elizabeth Haynes

Sarah Armstrong teaches on A215 Creative Writing. The Insect Rosary is published by Sandstone Press: http://sandstonepress.com/books/the-insect-rosary

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Hannah Vincent’s play wins BBC Audio Award

Hannah Vincent’s radio play Come to Grief has won an award for Best Drama in the Adaptation category in the 2015 BBC Audio Awards, announced on 1st February.

The judging panel said that the script, adapted from Hannah’s own stage play,  ‘brilliantly exploits radio’s unique ability to voice both the conscious and the unconscious mind. It is a play that haunts you with images that can only be realised by the listeners’ own imagination.’

The following synopsis of the play can be found on the BBC website:

Sylvia (Claire Rushbrook) is in hospital suffering from memory loss. She cannot remember anything about her life. The treatment she is undergoing is radical – she is suspended above the floor, hanging by her neck. Medical staff assure her that this way ‘everything will fall into place’.

As she hangs, Sylvia is visited by a series of figures, including her husband (Philip Jackson), her daughter (Emerald O’Hanrahan) and a man (Carl Prekopp), calling himself her friend, whom she cannot recognize.

But are these people real or phantoms? It soon becomes apparent that part of the space of the play is Sylvia’s unconscious, the land of her memory. As she comes to understand this, she slowly starts to remember the appalling events that have occurred….

Hannah teaches both A215 and A363 for the OU.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/TVJPhZL3PWrLlLcV6PT4Dg/bbc-audio-drama-awards-2015-winners

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Dancing with a Stranger – a short story collection from Pauline Hughes

This project began with trying out some short stories in the market.  I had been teaching some prose fiction on the creative writing course and I thought I really need to get some stories out there, rather than just my poetry publications.  One of two stories were taken by small publishers and then another one by Comma Press and I found that I completely enjoyed telling stories. DancingCOVLARGE There seemed to be recurring themes and obsessions.  I have always been fascinated by the process of migration, immigration, movement ofpeoples. Perhaps something in my own family history, with grandparents and parents on the move from Wales and Ireland and then my own adult life bringing up a family whose background was mixed.  So as I gradually put the stories together I found that what drew me were interactions between people of different cultures and from different countries.  The stories span quite a series of decades (but then I am really old!).  There’s a story set in an Irish immigrant family in the 50s and another set now where an illegal immigrant tries to find a man who will marry her so she can stay. Two of the stories are set in Sierra Leone where I have worked.

It’s hard to get feedback on stories as there are so many words.  I belong to a couple of writing groups but it’s all about looking at poems.   In the end I shared them with the novelist and editor John Murray on a course in Greece because I was desperate to get an outside perspective on whether they worked.  He was wonderfully encouraging but also sharp in his criticism.  So somehow or other everyone needs their fiction to be picked apart I think by someone who reads carefully.  I didn’t agree with everything he said and in the end used my own instinct with some elements of the writing (for example he doesn’t like the present tense in short fiction but I felt that it was right for some of the stories).

The publisher, Sheila Wakefield (Red Squirrel Press) has published my poetry so she knew my work and had seen some individual stories and approached me with the idea of doing a collection.

Red Squirrel Press

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A new poetry collection from Michael Thomas

Come To Pass – some reflections on group work

This collection, recently published by Oversteps Books, is the second in which I have arranged poems by sub-groups. In earlier collections, I think I must have had some sense of variation in subject or tone, so I can’t say that I just slung them in like packages in a delivery van. There was, however, no overt organising principle. Perhaps I had in mind Ringo Starr’s recollections of recording Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, given in an interview for the Beatles’ Anthology documentary. They started, he said, with a kind of military theme in mind for the album, which gave them the opening song, its reprise, and—via the persona of Billy Shears—‘With A Little Help From My Friends.’ But after that, ‘We said stuff it, let’s just do tracks.’

I’d always liked the idea of just doing tracks in poetry collections: letting different kinds of poems jostle each other and jump out at the reader in haphazardly contrasting ways. But I was aware that, for most poets, having a care for organisation was more important than my cavalier ‘herd ‘em up, move ‘em out’ approach suggested. In one interview, Philip Larkin noted that he saw his collections as akin to an evening at the music-hall: the clowns, the serious tenor, the dancing girls, the magician.

come-to-pass-fullSo with my last collection, The Girl from Midfoxfields, and this one, Come To Pass, I moved towards sub-groupings and saw the advantages that this could have. My first impulse was a simple one: put similarly-themed poems together so they have a bit of company. From this act of cod-altruism, however, grew the realisation that grouping poems might enable me to see them in a new way—possibly even see meanings which I had not intended when I first wrote them (thus sparing me, perhaps, the old experience of trying to catch up with someone else’s interpretation).

In Come To Pass, the sub-groups are ‘Black Countries’, ‘Calls and Responses’, ‘The Gather-man’, ‘Shelter Poems’ and ‘Exits.’ Only in ‘The Gather-man’ were the poems written on a unifying theme, the notion of a character who prepares the soon-to-die. The rest had been written at different times and, while I could see that I was moving back to subject A or B with this or that one, I didn’t immediately think ‘Ah, that’s another for a group.’ The headings actually came afterwards, but it was interesting to see how naturally different poems fell under them. ‘Calls and Responses’ turned out to be a home for poems of greater or lesser spirituality, while ‘Exits’ showed me how many poems I had written on the theme of ‘goodbye’—from ‘I Didn’t Mean It,’ about a domestic row, to ‘Union Junction’, which ends with a boy watching a swan sail away beneath a canal bridge:

as a child might stand
moon-eyed
quiver-mouthed
while eternity
with patient smile
explains itself

For this collection and the last, then, subgrouping has been the way to go. Whether I’ll continue it, I’m not sure, but I don’t think I’ll revert to the random business of ‘doing tracks.’ I’m not sure I’ll write anything else, but then, perhaps you never are after you’ve finished something. Anyway, I take heart from the words that Edward Bond gives Ben Jonson in Bingo, his 1973 play about Shakespeare’s final days in Stratford. Jonson is on his way north to torment Drummond of Hawthornden and stops off to see ‘sweet William’, as he calls him, and find out what he’s writing now. Nothing, insists Shakespeare:

Jonson: Why not?
Shakespeare: Nothing to say.
Jonson: Doesn’t stop others.

www.overstepsbooks.com

www.michaelwthomas.co.uk

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The Status of the Cat – Sean Elliot’s recently published poetry collection

In May 2013 I found myself coping with depression. Through the fog I reasoned that if I felt this bad, it would be difficult to feel any worse so why not take a risk? I had repeatedly tried to have a poetry collection published; if I approached a publisher now I would hardly feel the sting of rejection when it came. It would only be the cherry topping of pique on my black forest gateau of despair. I sent some of my poems to Elliot Robinson at Playdead Press. He agreed to publish my book. Some people, I thought morosely, would do anything to spite me.The Status of the Cat_Sean Elliott-2

Putting together a poetry collection is like arranging a mosaic. You are working with existing pieces rather than drafting something new. I had roughly a hundred published poems from twenty years of writing. The poems seemed to fall into several groups. Places were important and indirectly established a chronology: there were poems about Dawlish, the seaside town in Devon where I grew up; I’d moved to London in search of a career; my wife is German and several of my poems were about my growing love of the German landscape and culture; in recent years we had bought a house in Margate, another seaside town but a far more impoverished one than Dawlish.

Alongside the poems involving places, there were recurrent themes. Several poems were about the theatre (I had worked as a theatre usher for both the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre). There were poems about the minor dishonesties of social behaviour, inspired by Thomas Hardy’s Satires of Circumstance (1914), which I hoped were witty. There were poems about love, depression and paintings. I excluded about twenty poems because they duplicated things that were said better in another place, or they had lines I no longer liked. Initially, I planned to end the collection with the sequence of love poems as a final ‘cry from the heart’. I’m glad I changed my mind and put the love poems in the middle; they now seem like an important part of the whole rather than a wayward digression in the last few pages or a makeweight brought in to plump out an otherwise skinny book.

My title, The Status of the Cat, came from a section of poems involving cats. I am not a cat fanatic, likely to appear in future author photos clutching an embarrassed feline, but my book is about survival; cats proverbially have nine lives and always lands on his feet, they make good role models. The book came out in February 2014. It continues to prowl the bookshops while I have moved on to the next of my nine lives.

http://www.playdeadpress.com/

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Uncovering a hidden history – Nessa O’Mahony’s new poetry collection

For much of my life, I had absolutely no idea that my grandfather, Michael McCann, had fought in the First World War. I grew up with the image of him as the archetypal Irish nationalist hero of the first decades of the twentieth century. A brooding photograph of him in Free State Army uniform and flat-topped army cap dominated the dresser in my mother’s kitchen; stories of his escapades in the War of Independence and the Civil War were an integral part of family lore. But there was no mention of the earlier conflict my grandfather was involved in, as a Lance Corporal for the Royal Munster Fusiliers. His experience, like that of so many of the hundreds of thousands of Irishmen who fought in World War I, had been quietly obliterated from the official narrative. There was no room in the nationalist mythology for any stories about those who fought for other causes.

When I began to research my grandfather’s life in greater detail, in preparation for a memoir I hoped to write about him, I first turned to the obvious sources to flesh out the information I already had about his campaigns in the War of Independence and the Civil War. The Irish Military Archives were very helpful in finding Witness Statements that mentioned my grandfather, and his role in the various arson attacks in the North East of England that led to his imprisonment in Parkhurst in 1920. Newspaper cuttings testified to his involvement in ambushes during the Irish Civil War. The Garda Archives were able to provide me with an A4 sheet detailing his subsequent career as a Detective Inspector with the newly established Garda Siochána (Police Force).

It was when I trawling through genealogy websites to see if I could get more information about my grandfather’s family, who were small farmers in a townland called Derryronane in County Mayo, that the greatest surprise was uncovered. By this stage I knew he’d fought in the Great War – my uncle Liam had given me the one artefact linking my grandfather to the British Army: his soldier’s pay-book and wallet. But it wasn’t until I visited the genealogy website, and came across a posting from a complete stranger who was also seeking information about the Derryronane McCanns, that I got the visual evidence. The stranger turned out to be my second cousin – a direct descendant of my grandfather’s brother, John – and after we had exchanged emails he offered to send me various family photos.

When the email arrived with the PDF attachment, I casually scrolled through the old black and white photos of people who were vaguely familiar and others who were completely new to me. Then I came across one that brought me up short. A young man in British Army uniform poses with ceremonial cane, right-hand resting on the back of a tall, mahogany and leather chair. The pale eyes stare out quizzically with an expression I’ve often seen on the face of my elder brother, Tom. I knew, without having to be told, that this was a photograph of my grandfather, Michael McCann.

My mother, Mai, who is a marvellous raconteur, and who, at the age of 85, has an extraordinary memory for events that happened decades ago, had never seen that photograph, nor had any of her surviving siblings. I can only conclude that he sent it as a postcard to his family back on the farm in Derryronane, and that it was kept in his brother’s family and taken to the UK when a niece emigrated there sometime in the 1940s. I can’t imagine that it was ever displayed proudly on a mantelpiece; in post-independent Ireland, few were prepared to speak openly about family members who had fought for King and Country. So much had happened in the intervening years – a country divided by traumatic Civil War and attempting to come to terms with all the violence and petty hatreds that conflict had unleashed. Small wonder they adopted the classic Irish strategy of ‘whatever you say, say nothing.’

My grandfather must have seen extraordinary things in his early life but remained reticent throughout his later years. The various injuries (shrapnel wounds to the leg and wrist, a toe shot off) were the physical manifestation but there was little evidence of the mental suffering. One can only imagine the sort of post-traumatic stress he would have suffered, and was forced to contain within himself.

That tension between the public and the private expressions of identity captured my imagination; rather than memoir, I began to think about poems that might explore that tension. That was the genesis of this new collection of poems Her Father’s Daughter, which presents two parallel sequences of poems, one relating to my relationship with my own father, who died from a long illness during the making of the book; the second exploring the life of my grandfather, whose story slowly emerges through my mother’s memories, and my own research. I was delighted when my publisher agreed to put Granddad’s World War I photo on the cover.

I’ve no idea what Michael McCann would make of the book: puzzlement, perhaps, or annoyance that anyone was making much of what he himself had discounted or kept to himself. But I do hope that he might understand the motivation of the writer: to tell the story of a heroism typical of his generation, a heroism in danger of being forgotten once this decade of commemoration concludes.

Her Father’s Daughter is published by Salmon Poetry (Co. Clare). Further information is available on http://www.salmonpoetry.com/details.php?ID=344&a=12

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Joanna Ezekiel’s novel is published

My novel, The Inside-Out House is published in September 2014 by Indigo Dreams. Set in 1994, the main character is a fourteen-year-old girl, Sam Green, who moves from the lively seaside town of Seamead to the suburb of Rowham with her father. However, he can’t give her a clear explanation about why she isn’t allowed to visit the local park. Sam’s decisions and relationships eventually lead her towards the park and to its artwork, a tribute to Rachel Whiteread’s 1990s art installation ‘House’. 

While I was studying for an MA in Creative Writing and Personal Development at Sussex University, we looked at how long-buried memories might come to light through using metaphor and structure creatively. I am a fan of novels about houses that contain a secret or mystery. When I was deciding how to develop my own novel, I remembered how, for many months, my bus journey to work would take me past Rachel Whiteread’s ‘House’ art installation: this experience provided me with a way to write about memory, as well as about how young people access public space. 

“With ‘The Inside-Out House’ Joanna has written a humane story that elegantly fuses together poetry, family secrets and magic in the urban landscape.”
Steve Toase 

http://www.indigodreamsbookshop.com/#/joanna-ezekiel/4586130566

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Hannah Vincent’s debut novel is published

I am pleased to announce that my debut novel Alarm Girl is published in August 2014. 

The novel is set in South Africa and is partly narrated by eleven-year old Indy, who is visiting her father there for the first time since her mother’s death. The ‘otherness’ of Africa for Indy – the heat she finds uncomfortable, the landscape she doesn’t recognise, the encounters with people she doesn’t know – all help to create a sense of the foreign state that is a child’s motherless world.

I had the idea for the novel when I was travelling in Africa nearly twenty years ago so it’s been a long time coming! I was a playwright for many years and wrote a version of the story as a play firstly but it didn’t quite work so I ‘drawered’ it. After having babies and enjoying a stint as a television scripteditor I turned to prose writing and revisited the material. 

In spite of what anybody has to say about the value or lack of value in Creative Writing courses, my MA study in Creative Writing at Kingston University helped me improve my writing (Creative Writing students note that it also improved through commitment, open mindedness and a willingness to learn on my part!). Encouraging comments from tutors and fellow writing-workshoppers were instrumental in getting my work to a publishable standard and it’s why I am so happy to teach on the Open University’s Advanced Creative Writing Course (A363), which encourages writers to share work and feedback. 

Coming to prose from a drama background, I am interested in what elements a writer can transfer between the two mediums, which is precisely what A363 teaches. Drawing on my A363 teaching practice I have also written a mixed mode piece which experiments with movement between prose, drama and poetry (‘Human Geology’ published in a Special Issue of American British & Canadian Studies volume 20, June 2013).

This summer also saw the transmission of my first radio play Come to Grief, which was broadcast as an Afternoon Play on BBC 4 on the 15th July 2014 (at the time of writing available on i-player for 4 weeks…). Again, this work emerged out of my interest in how a different form can affect material – Come to Grief started life as a stage play, produced at the Royal National Theatre Studio in the mid ‘90s but takes on a new radiophonic identity in its current incarnation.

http://www.myriadeditions.com/Hannah_Vincent

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Shanta Everington wins young adult novel competition

My latest book is young adult dystopian novel, XY, launched at Manchester Children’s Book Festival in June 2014, after jointly winning the Red Telephone Books YA Novel Competition run by Manchester-based small press, Bridge House Publishing. 

The novel follows the story of fifteen-year-old Jesse, who lives in a world where babies are born neither male nor female, and Compulsory Gender Assignment is carried out at birth. But Jesse is keeping a secret. Pulled in different directions by her boyfriend Zeus, mother Ana’s Natural Souls, and new friend Ork, leader of We Are One, Jesse is forced to make her own mind up about who she really is.

Jesse’s story in XY came out of my fascination with the question: What does it mean to be male or female? Is gender identity biologically, psychologically or socially constructed? Writing helps me unravel questions and make sense of the world. Often several unconnected threads come together to form an idea for a book.

 When I became a parent, I was shocked at how much gender stereotyping still exists. You can’t walk into a children’s store without being bombarded with pink for girls and blue for boys. Why shouldn’t my sons wear pink tutus or play with dolls? Why, as a society, do we tend to see this in a different way from girls wearing trousers and playing with fire engines?

 While pondering on this, I read somewhere that scientists had linked ‘blended gender’ in fish to contaminants like pesticides, household laundry detergent and shampoo, and many pharmaceuticals. Similar things have occurred with other species and I got to wondering where this could lead and what would happen if we lived in a world where humans were born with indeterminate biological sex. How would society react? Would we still create gender roles? Would fear cause us to revert to traditional stereotyped views of the sexes?

When I had almost finished writing XY, a TV programme aired on BBC One called Me, My Sex and I which challenged the deeply-held assumption that every person is either male or female. According to the documentary, intersex conditions are, in fact, as common as twins or red hair – nearly one in 50 of us has some form of intersex. Yet it is a subject not often talked about.

 XY draws on many influences. I was inspired by Malorie Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses series set in a fictional, racist dystopia. We may be born with a skin colour and biological sex but race and gender are social constructs. XY is set in an alternative reality – where 91% of human babies are born neither male nor female.

 XY is my seventh published book and I am currently completing a sequel. I have published fiction (for adults and teens), poetry and non-fiction, all with small presses. For me, being creative is about having the freedom to experiment with different forms and audiences. My next big project will be life writing.

 Shanta Everington teaches on A215 Creative Writing and has recently worked as a Facilitator on the OU/FutureLearn Start Writing Fiction MOOC.

 To find out more about Shanta’s writing, visit www.shantaeverington.co.uk

Red Telephone Books: http://www.trtpublishing.co.uk/xy.html

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