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.

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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

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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

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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.

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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

Red Telephone Books:

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Kevan Manwaring – Desiring Dragons

Kevan Manwaring’s latest book Desiring Dragons: Creativity, Imagination and the Writer’s Quest was published by Compass books in May this year.  Unlike Kevan’s recent collections of folk tales, Desiring Dragons is described – somewhat tongue-in-cheek - in its preface as a ‘How to Write Fantasy’ book, and offers advice about fantasy writing gleaned from Kevan’s 13 years of teaching experience.  The extract, below, taken from the preface to Desiring Dragons, describes the aims of the book.

‘The book is divided into two main sections. The first, ‘Desiring Dragons’, is an essay on Fantasy – its origins, evolution and application. Tolkien’s approach is foregrounded throughout (the book takes it title from him after all), although other authorities are also cited. There is no attempt to be encyclopaedic here. Rather than be considered the ‘final word’, it is hoped that the essay will prompt further discussion. The writing and reading of Fantasy is an ongoing research project for not only scholars and authors, but also fledgling writers, students, and, of course, readers.  The territory continues to expand – with every innovative book, film, graphic novel, play and computer game –  so an exhaustive charting of it would quickly become redundant. All that can be provided is an entreport.

The second section is a breakdown of what I call ‘The Writer’s Quest’, based upon the Old English poem, Beowulf, one of Tolkien’s chief influences. In this, the creative process of writing is explored in the context of the ‘journey of a novel’, and as such can be applied to all genres of writing. At the end of each chapter there are ‘questings’ – suggestions for follow-up activities.’

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Ink Pantry interview with Mike Johnson on visual poetry

An interview with Mike Johnson, on the subject of visual poetry, was published in the Ink Pantry blog on 14 June 2014.  Ink Pantry Publishing was founded by a group of former students ‘whose paths crossed while studying Creative Writing with the Open University’.

In discussion, Mike explains that ‘visual poetry draws upon both visual and verbal semiotic modes’, making it ‘an example of multimodality’.  As an illustration, he cites his visual poem entitled ‘Sunset’, in which ‘variations in the word ‘horizon, and the letter ‘O’, which feature in a different position in each line, … are potentially verbally, visually, and kinaesthetically meaningful, as they simulate the sun’s movement caused by the earth’s rotations.’

Mike is currently revising and assembling work for a crossover collection, challenging genre and generational boundaries, for publication later this year.

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Joanna Barnden’s novel trilogy to be published by Pan Macmillan

After years of trying, Joanna Barnden, tutor on A215 and A363 has just signed a deal with Pan Macmillan for the publication of her trilogy The Queens of the Conquest under the pen name of Joanna Courtney. The first book, The Half Year Queen, is about Edyth, wife of King Harold of England in the fated run up to 1066 and will be published in October 2015. The second two are yet to be written but should (with some ferocious research and writing) be published in 2016 and 2017. Book Two of the trilogy will be The Last Viking Queen about Elizaveta, Russian Princess and wife of Harald Hadrada who was defeated by King Harold at Stamford Bridge just 2 weeks before Hastings. The final book, The Conqueror’s Queen, will be about Matilda of Flanders, wife of William the Conqueror, the ultimate victor in 1066. The books seek to look at life in these tumultuous times from a woman’s perspective and are aimed as commercial fiction. Indeed, in the press release, published in The Bookseller on May 14th, Joanna’s brand new editor Natasha Harding described the trilogy as “hugely impressive with a strong commercial appeal – perfect for fans of Philippa Gregory”. 

Joanna has written short stories and serials for the women’s magazines for over 10 years but has always sought to publish novels. She secured her agent, Kate Shaw of The Viney Agency, 4 years ago but despite some wonderful feedback, two books were rejected by the industry before this one, finally, found a home. She puts much of this final success down to sheer bloody-mindedness and a refusal to give up honing her craft and trying to find someone to love the Anglo-Saxon period as much as she does. Now Macmillan are backing her all the way and the next battle is reaching an audience who will love The Queens of the Conquest too.

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Heavenly Bodies – a constellation of poetry

During the first three weeks of 2014, eighty eight poets around the world started writing a poem – some were veterans with several collections to their name, some only at the start of their careers, some were writing with English as their mother tongue, others writing it as a foreign language…all writing under the same sky with eighty eight constellations as their inspirations. Some of the poems are formal, some are freewheeling but what they all have in common is that all are rooted on earth looking up to the stars.
This is the third collaborative anthology from the innovative poetry press Beautiful Dragons and, so far, the most ambitious. Previous collections – Solstice (2012) and The Witching Hour (2013) have focused on the summer solstice and Walpurgis Night respectively. Beautiful Dragons anthologies are unique collections, created in the spirit of collaboration with all poems being written, wherever the poet is in the world, at the same time.
A handful of the poets are OU Creative Writing tutors – Joanne Reardon Lloyd, Morgaine Merch Lleuad, Nessa O’Mahony and Anne Caldwell – and one of the poets was a student in creative writing at the OU, Dan Stathers. The founder of Beautiful Dragons and editor of the anthology is a former OU tutor herself, the award winning poet, Rebecca Bilkau whose first collection Weather Notes was published by Oversteps Books in 2012. The anthology was launched in Lancaster on Wednesday 30 April 2014 and will be available to buy very shortly…..
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Romy Thomas wins flash fiction mini-competition

Romy Thomas’s short story ‘Wings’ is the joint winner of the recent Cinnamon Press mini-competition – based on the theme of ‘changes’.

The competition judges described Romy’s story as follows: ‘Romyanna Thomas’s piece is a succinct and powerful narrative; from its shocking first sentence to the raw poignancy of the ending the whole piece sustains a single metaphor with superb control.’

You can read Romy’s story here:

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