In conversation with Ellora Sutton, prize-winning MA student

OU Creative Writing MA student Ellora Sutton, winner of the 2020 Mslexia Poetry competition, talks to Sally O’Reilly, Senior Lecturer, Creative Writing.

Ellora Sutton

Can you tell me about yourself and your writing? When did you first start? Do you focus on writing poetry, or do you write in other genres?

I live in the small village of Kingsley, in Hampshire, with my grandparents and aunt. I graduated with a First Class BA (Hons) in Journalism and Creative Writing from the University for the Creative Arts back in 2018, and I work in the heritage sector although I like to call myself a poet. My debut chapbook, All the Shades of Grief, was published last September by Nightingale & Sparrow, I’ve been published by Poetry News, Poetry Birmingham Literary Journal, and fourteen poems, amongst others. I’ve won the Mslexia Poetry Competition, the Poetry Society and Artlyst’s Art to Poetry Award, and I’m the first person to have won the Pre-Raphaelite Society Poetry Competition two years in a row. My main themes include art, feminism, mental health, and mythology.

I’ve always written. Some of my earliest memories are of dictating little stories to my mother for her to write down for me, before I knew how to properly hold a pen. I really got into poetry when I studied Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife at A-level, it was an absolute awakening for me. It was the first time I really experienced poetry rather than just reading it. My mother died when I was fifteen, and poetry was a vital outlet for me in terms of processing that grief – it still is. I focus my writing on poetry, I don’t have the patience for anything else! I love poetry because it really is an ‘anything goes’ kind of genre. There is total freedom in terms of form, subject, theme. I love the possibilities, the chances for surrealism. Poetry is the oldest kind of writing, but it in many ways feels (to me at least) like the most modern.

What stage are you at with the Creative Writing MA? Assuming poetry is your first genre, what is your secondary genre? Do the two genres inform each other, and in what way?

I am in my second year, and I’ve just started planning my big end-of-module project, I’m hoping to do something with trauma and Medusa. Yes, poetry is my first genre. My secondary genre, for both years, has been creative nonfiction, which has been utterly illuminating. I’d never tried creative nonfiction before, but it strikes me as quite a natural bedfellow to poetry. I’ve come to view poetry as a type of creative nonfiction, in that it often deals with the personal lived experience of the writer in creative ways. It’s been incredibly helpful as well in terms of research, a skill that I’ve carried over into my poetry.

How has the MA helped with your writing?

I live in quite a rural area, and I don’t drive, so it’s been wonderful to have such a thriving community of fellow writers and students to share my work with. It’s been very helpful, getting honest, constructive feedback on early drafts – it’s also been helpful to do the same for others, it’s sharpened my understanding of craft greatly. The MA has really pushed me to explore forms and themes I wouldn’t have otherwise thought myself capable of. For example, prose poetry had always felt beyond me. But we studied it in the second year, and it was set as an activity – the poem I first drafted for that activity, ‘A postcard on the restorative effects of sea air after a nervous breakdown’, recently won the Mslexia Poetry Competition. Prose poems have since become a bit of an obsession. Perhaps most importantly though, the MA has massively boosted my confidence in my writing.

What do you like to read? Has the MA made a difference to this? Who are your favourite poets/authors? Is there a writer you have discovered recently who you would recommend?

I have quite an eclectic taste. My big obsession is and forever will be Jane Austen – I am just coming to the end of my tenure as poet-in-residence at Jane Austen’s House. I do mostly read contemporary poetry, though, in the form of collections, pamphlets, magazines and journals. The MA has definitely widened my reading – studying creative nonfiction has ignited a love in me of biography, memoir, history, art history. It’s also made critical and craft writing feel much more accessible. Writing Poems by Peter Sansom has become my absolute bible, and I first met it through the MA.

My favourite poets include: Liz Berry, Carol Ann Duffy, Sylvia Plath, John Keats, Andrew McMillan, Ella Frears, Ella Duffy, Nina Mingya Powles, Phoebe Stuckes, Caroline Bird, Chen Chen, Ocean Vuong, Pascale Petit, Hannah Hodgson, Rachel Long, Natalie Diaz, Danez Smith, Natalie Linh Bolderston, Malika Booker – this is a very abridged list! I recently read Life Without Air by Daisy Lafarge, which absolutely blew my mind. And I’ve got to mention specifically Malika Booker’s Pepper Seed, another recent read of mine, the kind of book that stuns you as a reader and inspires you as a writer. My most prized possession is my signed copy of Carol Ann Duffy’s Collected Poems.

Where do you go from here? What would you like to achieve with your writing?

I’m currently working on a manuscript of poems looking at women’s mental health through the lens of my personal family history, which has been a very exploratory and freeing experience. I would love to find a publisher for that – that’s really my next big goal, a first collection. And completing my MA, of course! After that, I’d love to have a go at a PhD in poetry.

Posted in Reading pleasures, Teaching and learning | 1 Comment

Elspeth Huxley and Time & Tide

Anne Wetherilt, PhD student, English

In November 2020, a one-day online conference brought together scholars, journalists and readers to celebrate the centenary of the feminist magazine Time and Tide.  Speakers highlighted the magazine’s progressive interwar agenda, and the contributions of well-known writers such as Rebecca West, Winifred Holtby, E. M. Delafield and Cicely Hamilton.  Although the magazine had no overt party-political affiliation, it engaged with topical issues, including women’s political rights, their role in the workplace and their cultural interests.  In the late 1920s, it also embraced an internationalist agenda, committed to peace and disarmament.

However by the late 1930s Time and Tide had evolved from a feminist magazine, aimed primarily at educated middle-class women and their political and cultural interests, to a general interest periodical with an increasingly male and conservative readership.  After World War Two, the magazine moved further to the right and women no longer played a key role. Its post-war coverage has attracted limited scholarly interest.

I first became interested in Time and Tide’s post-war history as I was researching the late colonial fiction of Elspeth Huxley.  Best known for her fictional autobiographies The Flame Trees of Thika (1959) and The Mottled Lizard (1962), which depict an idyllic Kenyan childhood in the early decades of the twentieth century, Huxley was a frequent contributor to Time and Tide in the 1950s and 1960s, commenting on political developments in Britain’s overseas colonies. Although she came to accept African independence, Huxley was the voice of a conservative readership, consistently arguing against an accelerated timetable for decolonisation and expressing concerns about the future of African nations, governed by, in her view, ill-prepared indigenous politicians.

Widely recognised as an expert on African matters and praised for her lyrical descriptions of the African landscape, Huxley’s contributions provide a fascinating insight into the politics and lived experience of decolonisation.  But they also tell us something about Time and Tide’s post-war readership: interested in the Empire, willing to adopt a critical stance towards the British government, but not immune to sensationalist accounts of nationalist violence and African ‘savagery.’  Huxley’s journalistic output was substantial and varied, but two examples may illustrate these points.

In late 1953, Huxley reported on a recent trip to Kenya, providing first-hand experience of the Mau Mau insurgency.  Her articles contain a fascinating mix of location and character sketches: the reader walks with Huxley on the streets of Njoro, her former hometown, climbs on a jeep to visit a detention camp and witnesses the ‘brutish, sullen look of hatred and inhumanity’ on the faces of Mau Mau detainees.  These pieces combine factual reporting and an earnest attempt to understand the causes of the uprising, ranging from rural land poverty and urban unemployment to the loss of tribal customs and a desire to end colonial occupation.  But this is combined with more subjective, and at times racist judgement.  Thus, Huxley compares the Mau Mau uprising to European medieval witchcraft, a spiritual cancer, and its adherents to Nazi stormtroopers.  Equally controversial are her descriptions of the infamous Mau Mau oaths, which echo sensationalist media accounts, yet were based more on hearsay and less on fact:

There are seven grades of Mau Mau oath and now an eight has been added in the forest.  The ritual of the first three is disgusting and barbaric, but not unprintable, and a good many have taken at least the first two under duress.  Those who have taken the fourth oath and upwards have done so, it is believed, because they wished to and have performed such acts of bestiality (in its true sense) and perversion that many doubt whether these men and women can ever again take their places as decent members of a civilized society

Writing at the height of the Emergency, Huxley’s vision for a peaceful, independent Kenya is rather vague.  She recommends development in agriculture, irrigation and industry, alongside the eradication of racial barriers: ‘All Kenya’s races must work together towards coalescence as a nation.’

In August 1959, mere months before the British government lifts the Emergency and invites the various parties to the negotiating table, she offers a more focused commentary on Kenya’s political future.  Here, she reveals a deep unease with African leaders’ inclination towards one-party rule and dismisses what she views as the naïve British belief that newly independent nations will follow the Westminster model of democracy.  She further urges the Tory government to provide safeguards to Asian and European minorities ‘against being swamped by an enfranchised flood of Africans quite without experience.’

Huxley also criticises Labour for turning colonial politics into a major election issue, accusing them of undermining efforts to install democracy, by backing ‘self-rule plus autocracy.’  What is fascinating about this later piece is that it draws a clear line from colonial to metropolitan politics: Africa is to be a ‘stink-bomb’ in the forthcoming general election.  But, yet again, Time and Tide readers are given a topical political commentary, which is balanced precariously between factual reporting and lingering colonial discourse.

To conclude, by the 1950s, Time and Tide had travelled a long way from its suffragist and internationalist origins.   For me, this brief case study is relevant for two main reasons.  First, in light of the ongoing re-assessment of Empire, it is crucial to listen to a wide spectrum of voices, even when they express views that are ambivalent.  And second, not to abandon a historical source when its original commitment is a distant memory.

Sources:

‘The Kenya Scene – I: A Raid against Mau Mau’, Time and Tide, 28 November 1953, pp. 1539-40

‘The Kenya Scene – II’, Time and Tide, 5 December 1953, pp. 1569-70

‘Kenya Screening’, Time and Tide, 26 December 1953, pp. 1695-6

‘The Issue in Africa’, Time and Tide, 1 August 1959, p. 820

Further reading:

David Anderson, Histories of the Hanged: Britain’s Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2006),

Catherine Clay, Time and Tide: The Feminist and Cultural Politics of a Modern Magazine (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018)

Angela V. John, Turning the Tide: The Life of Lady Rhondda (Cardigan: Parthian, 2013)

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Poetry and theology in lockdown

“Walk under the full moon” by Mara ~earth light~ is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Hannah Hunt, Honorary Associate, FASS, Soc Sci & Global Studies

How has lockdown impacted your local community? And how can you stay creative when so much is in flux, and expected ways of being together are denied us? These are questions I have addressed over the last year in my work with Leeds Church Institute as their poet-theologian in virtual residence. LCI is a charitable, faith-based organisation which fosters continuing learning, mutual support and engagement with the arts.

In a previous life, I studied the theology of the early eastern Christian church, and LCI’s invitation to become their poet-theologian in virtual residence drew on my academic credentials as a theologian as well as my skills as a poet. For a year, starting last April, my task was to reflect in a spiritual manner about the impact on the communities of Leeds of the lockdown – using poetry as a medium. Week by week I distilled the statistics, rumours, anecdotes, experiences and fast-moving changes in rules and regulations governing our public and private lives, and sifted them into a 500 word blog. I drew on visual arts, music and the Bible, and both my own poetry and poetry of other poets which resonated with my experiences.

Sometimes I found that a poem I had written some time ago found new voice. Other poems grew new roots in this rich soil (and yes, as a gardener I know the benefit of waste products in compost heaps!) I found the ratio of thinking/research time to writing time meant comparatively little time actually sat in front of the screen; as a poet, I describe myself as a kinaesthetic writer: I need to literally ‘take a poem for a walk.’

As the weeks went by, I found I could not confine myself to Leeds. The Black Lives matter protests following the murder of George Floyd, the devastating explosion in Beirut, the tragic loss of lives of migrants attempting to reach sanctuary in the UK all featured alongside the success of Leeds United, the fortnightly filming of snippets of The One Show on my street, and other more local lockdown phenomena. There are perhaps many opportunities to write about one’s ideas and experiences but it was exciting to be paid as a professional writer/theologian to conduct this reflection.

I should say that in sympathy with the ‘continuing education’ ethos of both LCI and indeed the OU, all my postgraduate degrees (MA, PhD in Theology and MA in Creative Writing) were undertaken as a busy adult, juggling family and work commitments. I am so grateful that despite the rigours of lockdown, its isolation, its loneliness, its anxieties, I have been able to engage in new creativity to share with others.

Hannah Hunt (AL A335, A332).

These are some of the issues addressed in my latest book Reflections: A poet-theologian in lockdown Leeds, published by Maytree Press in February 2021. In addition to my work as an associate lecturer teaching level 3 English Literature and Religious Studies I have a portfolio of activities as a poet, editor and convenor of literary events in my adopted home city of Leeds. I publish my poetry under the name Hannah Stone.

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Belfast film poem awarded Berlin prize

Creative Writing Associate Lecturer Csilla Toldy has won an award for Best Street Art Film at the Berlin Underground Film Festival for her film poem ‘Belfast Exposed’. Sally O’Reilly interviewed her about her work and how this project developed.

Still from ‘Belfast Exposed’ by Csilla Toldy.

You can watch Csilla’s video on Youtube here

How does ‘Belfast Exposed’ relate to your previous practice as a writer/poet? How long have you been working with images?

I have been writing poetry for much longer than making video poems, but because I am a scriptwriter and I had an interest in art films and experimental films, I started to research video poetry as an artform. After making my first video poem (Point) with the support of Northern Ireland Screen, and having been selected with another (Hommage) to the Videoholica Video Art Festival in Varna, I was invited as a speaker for the Mix2 Conference of Digital Writing at Bath Spa University, where I delivered a paper on “Metaphors in videopoetry”. This paper is now published on academia.edu.

Is place in general and Belfast/Northern Ireland in particular important in your work more generally?

Yes, I wrote many poems about the cities I visited, and place is important in my prose as well. I lived in many different places during my life, and being on the move, on foot or by vehicle always inspires me.

How did you come to write this? What came first, words or images, or did it evolve in a different way? Was the idea of using multiple voices to create a choral effect there from the beginning?

I wrote the poem in the voice of a Syrian immigrant around 2015, when the migrant crisis started in Europe. It became one in a series of poems that I wrote about cities and I read them at venues in Belfast, Dublin and Bray. In 2019 I was selected to take part in the New Voices of Ireland Series 7 organised by the Centre for Creative Practices in Ireland. They select 10 migrant artists for each series and Series 7 had the theme of Cultural Memory – Transition, Temporality, Transcultures. I used the voices of my co-artists and put out a call for local speakers on Facebook to give me their voices for the film. I was interested in the diversity of accents. The idea was that I would use the footage of Belfast in movement with special focus on the murals and use the voices of migrants and locals mixed as a soundscape. People could interpret the poem as they pleased. The choral effect was developed during the editing phase.

Can you tell me about the process of producing it? How long did it take?

Filming happened during a couple of afternoons. I knew the places I wanted to show, East Belfast and West Belfast, the two hemispheres with their opposing murals, but we start the film in the Cathedral Quarter, the cultural hub of the city where the gay bar the Kremlin is situated with its Lenin Statue and the rainbow flags. I found this always exhilarating, for I grew up in socialist Hungary in the shadow of this icon. Each, the Protestant and the Catholic communities have marked their territories with their murals, of course, but the film finishes with the Rise sculpture created by Wolfgang Buttress, symbolising unity. Collecting the voices took longer and editing took about a week, which I did on my computer.

When did you receive the award? Was there a virtual ceremony? (Shame not to go to Berlin!)

I heard about being short listed at the beginning of a week in October and by the end of that week I got the award. It all happened very quickly. It is a shame that they had to cancel the physical event, but they will screen all the winning films next year and I am hoping to go to Berlin then.

What are you working on now? And do you have future plans for similar collaborations/multi media work?

Around this time last year I was commissioned by the Executive Office of Northern Ireland to create a public artwork for Holocaust Memorial Day 2020, to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps. I worked on this video poem in the first ten weeks of 2020. The launch was planned for 15th April, the day when the British liberated the last camp, Bergen-Belsen, but the pandemic made this impossible. The finished video poem, “Here I Stand” will be launched on Holocaust Memorial Day 2021, on 27th January online on the website of the Executive Office and the Holocaust Memorial Fund. It was a great honour to work on this film and it was a deeply emotional journey. For this, I wrote the poem at the same time when I applied, so it started with the text as well, but I created a story board in tandem. I travelled to Paris and Budapest to shoot and I used archive footage as well. The poem was inspired by the story of a boy, who survived Auschwitz because he lied about his age. His mother told him to join the other line and go with his older brother and thus she saved his life. The poem is voiced by the mother and the son as an old man, looking back. Alongside the video poem, I made a 30-minute reportage with survivors of genocides in the 20th Century for educational purpose. I am very upset about the rise of the far right in Western countries, including Hungary and Germany and even the UK, and I feel that living witnesses have to be given a voice. I was privileged to interview survivors from Auschwitz, Rwanda, Cambodia and Bosnia, and asked them what their message was for the youth of today.

My next commission is an eco-video poem for Earth Day 2021. This will have multiple translations of the same poem about the earth, which I wrote at the age of 18 in Hungarian, originally. I asked the translators to voice the poem for me in their own language. I am trying to get voices from each continent, and even in languages that are on the brink of extinction. I started to collate the footage during lockdown. It will be the same field and the same beach over the seasons, near the place I live, but you can imagine that the beach is polluted with the debris from the sea, plastic and…masks! This is work in progress, but I am hoping to raise awareness for environmental issues as well, and the often-neglected fact that the earth is our shared home.

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Gender and Otherness in the Humanities (GOTH)

Interview with (Peg) M A Katritzky, Senior Research Fellow, Department of English & Creative Writing

Can you tell me more about Gender and Otherness in the Humanities (GOTH)?

In 2019, GiTH (Gender in the Humanities) a research group active in the Arts Faculty of The Open University from around 1990 to 2013, was relaunched as GOTH (The Centre for Research into Gender and Otherness in the Humanities). A substantial US award funded the launching of GOTH as a Research Centre based in the OU’s School of Arts and Humanities, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, and a three year GOTH Doctoral Studentship, awarded to Chris Dobson in 2020.

Our annual programme of events, planned and guided by our Committee and Advisory Board, is designed to appeal at various levels. We support OU researchers and postgraduates with specialist interests wishing to strengthen their interdisciplinary network; additionally, we welcome all OU employees and postgraduates with more general GOTH-related interests wishing to meet colleagues and enjoy a cultural experience, at whatever level of engagement. GOTH currently has more than 50 members.

Are you talking about the Humanities at any time, or is there a focus in terms of historical period?

We welcome collaboration with the Faculty’s historically focused research groups, such as those for the Classical, Medieval & Early Modern and Post-Colonial periods. Rather than having a specific historical focus, we aim to support members’ GOTH-related research interests. In connection with one of these, ShAC, I published a book chapter (“Margaret Cavendish’s Female Fairground Performers”) in The Palgrave Handbook of the History of Women on Stage, 2020 (see publicity poster with Bernardine Evaristo below). GOTH provides a platform for members’ research bids, and has recently submitted a GOTH-based bid for European funding for EURO-PPP (Trans-European Performance, Practice and Patronage as Cultural Heritage). If successful, this collaborative international three year project will examine live travelling performance of every period, with particular emphasis on the present.

Poster for The Palgrave Handbook of the History of Women on Stage, 2020

What events are you holding online? Are there ways in which lockdown and online meetings gives a group like GOTH greater global reach?

For now, we are adapting our regular events to the pandemic by going online with our entire events programme, and maximizing current opportunities to attract inspirational overseas presenters and widen participation:

* The live performances at our October 2019 launch party led to requests for more live theatre visits. While that’s on hold, Christine Plastow led an October 2020 online viewing of the recorded livestreamed production of By Jove Theatre Company’s Medea LIVE, followed by lively online discussion; more performances will follow.

* Our first Reading Group (‘Nationalism and Feminism’) was a live event led by Suman Gupta in January 2020; on 3 December 2020, Francesca Benatti will go online with our second Reading Group (‘Digital Comics’).

* Similarly, the first GOTH / Health & Wellbeing PRA Joint Annual NetWorkshop was held live in January 2020, with around 20 delegates enjoying excellent presentations by PG Kim Pratt and postdoc Sally Blackburn-Daniels, and an informative funding workshop led by Shaf Towheed (English) and Gaynor Henry-Edwards (WELS), followed by a Research Showcase of members’ recent publications and funding successes. The second Joint Annual NetWorkshop (4 Feb 2021), featuring OU speakers Sophie-Grace Chappell (keynote, Philosophy) and Naomi Barker (Music) will be online.

* Our inaugural GOTH Awayday was to Hardwick Hall in May 2019. Plans for London Awaydays led by Clare Taylor and Gemma Allen are on hold while the Committee explores options for moving our Awaydays online.

* The Annual GOTH Research Symposia, funded by a modest US follow-on award in 2020, were planned as specialist invitation-only residential research workshops. The first (20-21 May 2021) has moved online; we are honoured that GOTH board member Noémie Ndiaye (University of Chicago) has agreed to present the keynote.

* An exciting new development is the monthly GOTH PG Forum. Postgraduate convenors Chris Dobson and Sharon Wiseman (English) and Kim Pratt (Classics) welcome all OU postgraduates with GOTH-related interests on the first Thursday of each month. They first met on 5 November 2020; future activities include a takeaway party on December 3.

What would you like to see GOTH achieve?

Essentially, GOTH seeks to promote an awareness of the centrality of diversity to an understanding of the humanities, both within the OU and in society more broadly. We aim to support the GOTH-related activities and interdisciplinary exchanges of OU colleagues and postgraduates. More generally, we seek to continue the OU tradition of providing conventional academic institutions with helpful templates for online events, ever more relevant in the current circumstances.

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‘Things we cannot know’: Julian Barnes’ The Man in the Red Coat

Alistair Daniel, Associate Lecturer, Creative Writing

In June 1885, three Frenchmen – the prince Edmond de Polignac, Count Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac, and the ‘celebrity gynaecologist’ Dr Samuel Jean Pozzi – arrived in London. They went shopping, had dinner with Henry James, and went home. It’s a thin premise for a story, fictional or real, yet from it Julian Barnes has woven a typically rich and absorbing tapestry in The Man in the Red Coat (2019).

From A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters (1989) to Levels of Life (2013), Barnes has spent a long and garlanded career eluding categorisation and The Man in the Red Coat is no exception. Is it a group biography, a biography, or something else? As a portrait of its three protagonists it’s more than lopsided, since Barnes largely ignores Polignac in favour of Montesquiou and Pozzi, both of whom make fascinating subjects in their own right. Montesquiou was a snob with a taste for cruelty, picking up talented boyfriends and destroying them when he grew bored. The dark allure of his character was not lost on artists of the time, and the count appears in several novels, including Huysmans’ À rebours (1884) and Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-27). He was also the model for Whistler’s Arrangement in Gold and Black (1891-2). It’s perhaps this artistic over-representation that encourages Barnes to focus on Pozzi, himself the subject of Sargent’s Dr Pozzi at Home (1881), a portrait that provides the cover, the title and the inspiration for this book.

Image of book cover for ‘The Man in the Red Coat’ by Julian Barnes.

If Barnes recounts Montesquiou’s bad behaviour with relish, his sympathies lie firmly with Pozzi, a pioneering surgeon whose innovations in hygiene and surgical technique radically improved survival rates, particularly for bullet wounds to the gut. He treated both public and private patients and was tireless in his promotion of high medical standards all over the world. He was also something of an international playboy, hobnobbing with celebrities and taking mistresses to Bayreuth. Nor did his professionalism prevent him from seducing his patients, and Barnes is careful to trace the impact of his behaviour on his long-suffering family through the journals of his outraged daughter Catherine.

Pozzi himself kept no journal, and it’s perhaps for this reason that The Man in the Red Coat sidesteps conventional biography. In fact, for long stretches the book neglects Pozzi in favour of a stroll through fin de siècle Paris, with Barnes as flâneur and guide. It’s a world populated by artists, including Oscar Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt, the Goncourt brothers, Huysmans, Proust and a host of less illustrious figures, like the Symbolist poet and novelist Jean Lorrain, who wasted his talent in endless feuds (he once fought a duel with Proust).

Writing in the fragmentary, episodic style familiar from his recent fiction (The Sense of an Ending, The Noise of Time), Barnes grants himself licence to stray into any area that takes his fancy – the Dreyfus affair, duelling culture, Oscar Wilde’s tour of the US – and in many ways The Man in the Red Coat reads as a compendium of familiar Barnesian enthusiasms, including Flaubert, literary style, the nature of biography and 19th-century France. As a result the book, while never less than entertaining, is more extended essay than biography, a companion piece to Something to Declare (2002), his essay collection on French culture, liberally sprinkled with colour plates and photo cards of fin de siècle celebrities. It meanders, with frequent detours, through Pozzi’s life in loose chronology, before eventually arriving at his demise.

One of Barnes’ preoccupations – here as elsewhere – is with the challenges of historical memory. ‘“We cannot know”’, he writes, ‘is one of the strongest phrases in the biographer’s language,’ and in a late section entitled ‘Things we cannot know’, Barnes lists some of the unanswerable questions that surround Pozzi’s life. Many novelists would view the gaps in the historical record as an opportunity, as Barnes is well aware: ‘All these matters could,’ he notes, ‘be solved in a novel.’ Which begs the question: why didn’t he weave a novel out of such rich – and tantalisingly incomplete – material? After all, he has done it before: both Flaubert’s Parrot (1984) and Arthur and George (2005) made fiction from nineteenth-century lives. It’s a question that only intensifies at the book’s denouement, when a disgruntled patient shoots Pozzi in the gut and the most celebrated surgeon of the age suddenly finds himself under the knife. Here Pozzi’s life assumes the pattern of art. For some novelists the symmetry would be irresistible (Ian McEwan made a similarly ironic plot twist the climax of Saturday). But Barnes is unmoved. As a novelist he is allergic to neat plotting and glib denouements and, as Sebastian Groes and Peter Childs have pointed out, ‘the unanswered and unresolved meanings of life and death suffuse all Barnes’s work’ (2011, p. 9). In Barnes’ view, it is not the job of fiction to stitch life into pleasing patterns and shapes. It’s only in non-fiction that ‘we have to allow things to happen – because they did – which are glib and implausible and moralistic’ (Barnes, 2019, p. 258). It’s this commitment to life’s complexity, and the limits of knowledge, that accounts for the book’s episodic structure, a structure that, through its gaps and silences, its detours and shifts in focus and tone, embraces mystery, leaves loose ends untied and offers more questions than answers. In Flaubert’s Parrot, Geoffrey Braithwaite likens biography to a fishing net, ‘a collection of holes tied together’ (Barnes, 1984, p. 38). Nearly 40 years on from that award-winning novel Barnes is still fishing in these philosophical waters, hauling lost treasures from the deep, inspecting the flotsam, and contemplating all the things lost at sea.

The Man in the Red Coat is available in hardback.

Barnes, J. (1984), Flaubert’s Parrot, London: Picador

Groes, S. & Childs, P. eds (2011), Julian Barnes: Contemporary Critical Perspectives, London: Continuum

 

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Writing in Lockdown

Jo Barnden, AL on A215 and A363

For those first, intense weeks of lockdown, I seemed to be out of step with the rest of the world. Everyone was telling Twitter how much time they had to walk through nature and take up knitting, to make TikTok videos and bake bread (if they could track down yeast). Frankly it sounded wonderful but it was not my experience. Quite the contrary, I was chained to my desk trying to write a novel in four weeks – the most intense working challenge of my life.

It started when my agent rang me out of the blue to say that my publisher had ‘had an idea’ and thought I might be the writer to bring it to fruition. Piatkus publish my historical novels as Joanna Courtney. These are works set in 1066 and earlier that take at least a year to research and write, but what they wanted from me now was a contemporary novel, a lockdown love story. Needless to say, we had to move fast.

I was perhaps not as bizarre choice as that makes it sound. Two years ago I’d started writing contemporary fiction as Anna Stuart for another publisher, Trapeze. Both books (Bonnie and Stan and Four Minutes to Save a Life) had done well so hopefully that was some quality assurance for them. More importantly they knew that I’m quite efficient when it comes to writing – though none of us were sure if ‘efficient’ would add up to a 70,000-word novel in four weeks.

This, I was told, was an ‘IP (Intellectual Property) Project’ in which the core idea for the novel had been invented by the publisher – to be precise a lovely editor called Hannah – and I was the ‘hired pen’ to bring it to life. It’s not like ghost writing as I was simply given a handful of characters and a plot outline with the rest very much mine to bring to life. However, because it was her idea the editor was very bought in and very, very helpful in how we put it together. That was to be invaluable in the intense weeks that followed.

I loved the basic concept and the characters seemed to come to life for me instantly so I fleshed out Hannah’s core plans and within a week we had signed a deal. It was hard to credit. Having spent years and years trying to land a novel contract, I felt as if I was suddenly being handed one on a plate – now all I had to do was write it. Simples! Except that my normally empty house was now filled with a husband working from home, two kids who should have been doing GCSEs and A-levels, and a 23-year-old stepson who’d had to flee his lovely job in the ski-bars of Whistler. It was a worry. I like a quiet house to write in and I certainly wasn’t going to get that.

As it turns out, however, the young folk quickly went nocturnal, leaving things pretty quiet until at least midday and with my husband working with China we were both at our desks by 7am – my most productive time anyway. Plus, to be fair to the kids, they stepped up and took on both the cooking (enthusiastically) and the cleaning (less so!), so all I had to do was shut myself in my little office and write. To be honest, I loved it.

The novel is called Just the Two of Us and is about a middle-aged couple whose kids have left home and who are on the brink of divorce when they find themselves locked down together. All that enforced time in the house pushes them to explore the things that have messed up what was once a wonderful marriage and to see if, perhaps, there’s a way back to happiness. It cuts between the current story and flashbacks to their long, shared past and was fun to write, if a little tricky in terms of timelines.

That, however, is where my editor came in. I provided the first 28,000 words in a week (it was a hell of a week!) and she was back to me two days later – that’s almost unprecedented in the publishing world! It was the same again once the first draft was done three weeks later. We chatted on the phone and over email and tinkered with second and third drafts and, miraculously, six weeks after I signed the contract, we sent Just the Two of Us to copy edit at 80,000 words. It was a whirlwind but fantastic fun and, most importantly, early reviews from NetGalley readers suggest that people are really enjoying it.

How did we do it? I’ve no idea! I’m a planner. I always have a full chapter-by-chapter synopsis of my novels, historical or contemporary, before I start so that I can hit the ground running and I think that helped here. I have no idea how people manage to just start writing without knowing where the novel is going, but everyone has to write the way that suits them best. It seems that for me that is in a manic, concentrated run.

Lessons learned? The biggie is that traditional publishing houses can be more mobile and responsive than they usually let on and I think that’s the way they’re going to have to go with digital-first publishers producing books so nimbly these days. For myself, it confirmed that I like working under pressure – and that I really like not doing housework!!

My agent did scare me the other day by saying ‘I know how fast you can write books now, so I expect at least three next year.’ In this, she will be disappointed. Just the Two of Us was a one-off, driven by the strange coronavirus circumstances we all found ourselves in. I may not have learned to knit, or made TikTok videos (to my kids’ relief) but I did write a lockdown love story.

Jo Wilde is on twitter and facebook as @jowildeauthor

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Ed Hogan interview

Ed Hogan is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at the Open University. His first novel, Blackmoor, won the Desmond Elliott Prize, and was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award. Other novels include The Hunger Trace, and Daylight Saving, which was shortlisted for the Branford Boase Award. His next book, The Electric, is published by John Murray, in 2020. He is now writing short stories, has recently been longlisted for the Costa Short Story Prize and the Sunday Times Audible Short Story prize.  Here he discusses his approach to writing short stories with Sally O’Reilly, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing.

Sally: How would you define a short story? And what are its limitations? I’ve read a number of contemporary short stories recently, and many of these cover long time periods, have multiple characters and are told from different points of view.  What’s your take on this?

Ed: Last year, I made a commitment to read a short story every day. What struck me was the variety of the form. Yes, I read lots of oblique, Hemingway-ish stories. But, as you suggest, there were also many long stories with lots of narrative – the type Alice Munro specialises in. Some were like dramatic monologues, while others played with the conventions of sub-genres. I read epistolary stories, and stories that took the form of job inductions, or psychotherapy sessions.

Short stories allow you to travel very quickly in your reading. One particular week, I read stories by a writer from Korea (Kim Young-Ha), Argentina (Samanta Schweblin), Zimbabwe (Petina Gappah) and…Derbyshire (Hilary Mantel). In doing this, I realised that some of my earlier assumptions about the form were culture-bound.

I think short stories lend themselves to formal boldness, because they allow both readers and writers to walk the tightrope a bit more. A writer might try something unusual, because it won’t require 500 pages. And a reader might agree to suspend disbelief for 2000 words.

In terms of effects, I can think of many occasions when I’ve cried over short stories, and several times recently (James Salter’s ‘Last Night’, and Camille Bordas’ ‘The Presentation on Egypt’) when I have literally shouted out in shock.

I know you’ve turned to reading short stories recently, too. How did that come about?

Sally: I was partly inspired by your example! And also, because I am writing a novel, I feel freed up by reading short stories. I feel that the possibilities for writing at any length seem looser and more open after reading short stories. A lot of novels, my own included, include a certain amount of ‘business’, linking scenes, sections to establish character, sections which slow things down for a while. In short stories, there is so much precision and intensity. 

Do you think there are fashions in the short story, in terms of what is published, and what competition judges are looking for? Writing is always a conversation/argument/response to other writing, but is this sense of engaging with other stories stronger when you are writing at this length? Is it inhibiting to be aware of the zeitgeist, or do you find it useful to immerse yourself in short fiction when you are writing stories?

Ed: Recently, I read three short stories by well-known British writers (Jon McGregor, Sarah Hall, Cynan Jones), and each one was about a person gradually realising that they’re stranded in a large body of water. I found that very striking. Island anxiety, perhaps.

I read short stories every day, but they’re not always contemporary ones (Daphne Du Maurier, yesterday). In my writing, I’m much more interested in the moment of composition than the moment of publication.

In terms of competitions, I’m drawn to the anonymity – the fact that you don’t send a CV with it. Although I know that the anonymity of competitions can be problematic.

I guess a lot of novelists, in June 2020, are probably looking at their contemporary novels, and thinking, ‘Ah. Right. I may have to make a few changes, here.’ That makes assumptions about novels being ‘news’ or even mimetic, but what about you? I know you’re writing historical fiction, but has the pandemic, or the protests, made you look again at your work in progress?

Sally: Yes! The novel I am working on is set in 1899 and the ‘present’, and this has now morphed from 2020 to 2019 due to coronavirus. There is bound to be a weird thing in contemporary fiction where what we thought of as normal life (with all its abnormalities) ended in 2019 and then there is a sort of cliff edge. Having said this, some of the themes I’m writing about relate to nature and science, and the pandemic makes this aspect seem even more urgent and relevant. The zeitgeist has changed, and that will permeate fiction. 

Sally: Can you tell me more about your Sunday Times Audible longlisted short story ‘Single Sit’, and how you came to write it? Did it come easily, or did you spend a long time writing and refining it? How did it compare to the process of producing other short stories that you have written?

Ed: ‘Single Sit’ is about a conservatory salesman on a call with a potential customer. My dad sold windows and conservatories for many years, alongside his successful semi-professional football career, so I knew some of the language from that business. (Although Frank, my character, is very different from my dad). I’m interested in work vocabularies. Kick-ins and blowouts and single sits.

It arose from a bit of dialogue between Frank and Mrs Cortez, the customer. Once I hit on a relationship – any kind of relationship – I feel like I might have a story. So, I wrote the first two thirds in a few days. But then it went somewhere unexpected, and I couldn’t finish it for ages. I’m in a writing group, and they helped me a lot with the ending. The whole process, start to finish, with editing and putting it away…it took two years.

The longlisting was a fluke, but this is a story about a salesman, and the first principle of sales is that you play the numbers. Knock on every door, enter every competition. ‘Double your failure rate’, as they say.

Sally: You have published several novels, with your latest, The Electric, coming out this summer. Is it possible to compare the process of novel writing to short story writing?

Ed: A while ago, I was asked to recommend some books for a friend. The list I wrote contained about six short story collections, and the others – things like Hawthorn and Child, Legend of a Suicide, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders; Union Street, The Vegetarian – weren’t really ‘conventional’ novels, but collections of linked stories. In those books, much meaning came from the overlap of the stories, the repetition of themes, ‘the singular obsessions endlessly revised’ to steal a phrase from Thomas Lux. I thought I should investigate what those reading tendencies might mean for my writing practice. I’m still new to the short story as a writer, though, and most of the stories I write are terrible, but it’s a process.

There are practical considerations, too. I reckon there’s a moment in writing – and I’m certain this goes for writing in all research disciplines – where you become absolutely absorbed, completely compelled. It’s a physical thing. Currently, given busy personal and professional circumstances for which I am very grateful, the short story is the form which allows me to complete a draft of something while I am still in touch with that initial impulse. To finish before I forget why I started. Of course, then you have to spend two years revising it!

Sally: Do you like writing shorter pieces? Do you find them ‘easier’ in any way, or just different from novel writing? Do you envisage a short story in its entirety, or do you ever write not knowing the outcome, as novelists often do?  And, final query in a multifaceted question, can you write short stories while you are working on a novel, or does the one exclude the other?

Ed: I definitely don’t find short stories easier. Writers often balk at the question, ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ but that’s where I struggle. George Saunders says that when he finishes a story, he’s convinced he’ll never have another idea again. I feel like that, too. Unfortunately for me, that’s where my similarities with George Saunders end.

One thing about producing several stories over a year or so is that you see your unconscious preoccupations delineated quite sharply. Much of my recent short fiction has taken place in or around cars, despite the fact that I don’t really like them. When you see those connections, you can decide whether to resist or explore them.

The editing process is very different with a short story, isn’t it? For a start, you can re-read your story in one sitting. I remember watching Sympathy for the Devil, the film which shows the Rolling Stones in the studio, developing the song of the title. I was so jealous. With a pop song, you try it one way, and three minutes later, you can – if you’re Mick Jagger – say, “Oh, not like that, Charlie, you mug!” and try it another way. It takes me three weeks to read my own novel.

 

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Cold Dark Matter: Writing a poetry collection during lockdown

Image shared under Creative Commons licence: ‘Anti-Mass’, de Young Museum, San Francisco, US, https://www.famsf.org/blog/framework-anti-mass-cornelia-parker Source/photographer “Anti-Mass,” Cornelia Parker (de Young Museum)

By Patrick Wright, PhD Student, Creative Writing

As an introvert, and usually working from home, the lockdown has allowed much of my practice to go on unabated. Some aspects have intensified: developing an active imagination and reflection are two examples that come to mind. While in some ways productive, there’s always the lingering threat of such faculties lapsing into torpor, lethargy, or morbid daydreaming. As immersive as my own bookshelves have been, the tranquillity of my back yard, and embrace of digital technologies, underlying my new methods is a quiet despondency.

Still immersed in a grief process, after losing my partner, and left alone in a flat, surrounded by our combined possessions, is a dangerous recipe – especially as a poet, where life is often fraught with precariousness and introspection.

From my first experience of a PhD, I know it can be isolating at the best of times; the ideas just too rarefied for friends, family, or pub conversation. Now, though, the restrictions on movement and socialising have greatly exacerbated this reality. I miss having a workplace, with those familiar water cooler moments; and I feel at some remove from my colleagues, living as I do in the North-West. Though I am clear in my purpose and grateful for my vocation. This, for now, is a Creative Writing PhD with the working title Cold Dark Matter: The Ekphrasis of Modern and Contemporary Art, supervised by Siobhan Campbell and Jane Yeh.

As a means of survival, I imposed for myself a structure and discipline. I replaced my familiar café environment with a picnic table. I’ve written many of my poems in cafés: maybe it’s something to do with finding an optimum decibel level for my creative flow, or I feel reconnected with human presence.

Image shared under Creative Commons Licence: “let me show you” by kygp is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I also had to replace my excursions to galleries and museums with the use of art history books, exhibition catalogues, and virtual museum tours (e.g., Kettle’s Yard). My home library has revealed overlooked marvels, as I’ve lived out a similar narrative to the one in Xavier de Maistre’s A Journey Around My Room.

My practice research focuses on the ekphrasis of modern and contemporary art; and thus far I’ve enjoyed writing in situ: in front of a painting for instance, or spending time in the holdings, having arranged a private viewing. On such occasions, I’ve sketched first drafts that incorporated, in some way, the details on the surface of the artwork, the texture, the detritus, and so on; details that may not been seen in a reproduction. There’s also the smell of the gallery, the sounds around me – the chatter of tourists, the screams of children – and the paratextual features: the blurb, the frame, or other images in juxtaposition, curated alongside.

Inspiration has, no doubt, been affected. I have been less productive during lockdown. It’s likely that we’re not wired to flourish while detained and enduring a monotonous routine. It might also be the case that – at this stage in writing what will be my second poetry collection – I’m less eager to just write another poem, especially if it’s similar to something I’ve written before. The reflective part of my thesis has aided my awareness of such repetition, while I’ve become more conscious in general of my decision-making and poetics; though this is a challenge, as I’m still habituated into an M.O. that’s often instinctive. I’ve also found that analysing the complexity of my inner dialogue can be overwhelming; or lead to the realisation that my mind is, on some level, preoccupied with nerdy considerations, such as obsessing over whether to use parataxis in the third line of a ghazal.

My recent confinement has also been, like many kinds of limitation, enabling. I’ve begun, over the past few weeks, a series of poems that respond in some way to the pandemic. One recent example is my poem ‘An Exploded View’, which takes its title from an installation by Cornelia Parker (‘Cold Dark Matter – An Exploded View’):

Without being able to see Parker’s artwork first-hand, my poem begins with recalling it to mind. I visualised her installation (an exploded shed, frozen in time), then visualised how my poem could look, set out on the page with a shape analogous to the artwork. (For now, at least, my words are ‘exploded’ in fragments around the page.) During my research, I consulted Google Images, which provided a series of intriguing viewpoints under different lighting conditions; and yet I was aware the re-mediated artwork was no substitute for standing in the gallery. So many angles are elusive; my distance from the work is accentuated; and the device through which I look (an iPhone) makes the jpegs obscure and subject to unwanted reflections in the mid-afternoon sun. In this poem, and others, the technology – with all its filters and frustrations – becomes part of what I write about, along with peripheral aspects of my often incongruous lived milieu (‘a sky-dance of swallows’).

Despite ongoing struggles in seeing art through such screens, I’ve been drawn to André Malraux’s notion of the ‘Imaginary Museum’: how, in a culture of reproduction, art is now potentially more accessible and democratic. Likewise, I’ve applied the idea of the ‘death of the author’: rejoicing in my own interpretations or misperceptions.

For now, I’m content to borrow at least half of Parker’s title for my collection. A title, I’ve found, can have the power to drive a collection forward, to give it an identity or coherence. Many of my poems – like ‘An Exploded View’ – look to clash disparate lexicons together: in this case, art and cosmology; and I like how ‘cold dark matter’, rather than a phrase coined by Parker, is also a term that refers to around 85% of the universe, which remains invisible. In addition to suggesting how my ekphrastic collection is tethered to this and other artworks, the title is apt for another reason: my poems make use of scientific vocabulary to explore the metaphysical questions that arise in the space of bereavement.

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Caron Freeborn (1966-2020): an appreciation

Steve Padley, Staff Tutor, English

Caron Freeborn, who died in April after a short illness, was a poet and novelist, and an AL in Creative Writing at the Open University. She taught on A215 and A363. She was also a close personal friend for almost 30 years, but, more than that, she inspired and influenced me massively, just as she inspired so many students through her teaching for the OU, the University of Cambridge and Anglia Ruskin University.

I first met Caron and her partner, Chris, in 1991, when we were students at the Summer School in York for A319 Literature in the Modern World (Caron and Chris had met each other at another York OU Summer School the previous year). Caron and I bonded over the similarities in our backgrounds: we were both from working-class families and the first in our families to get a University education. We also bonded over some of the texts and writers we encountered on A319, above all, the poetry of Tony Harrison, whose representations of working-class experience spoke to us in powerful ways.

Although Caron was in many respects a typical OU student, she didn’t complete her OU degree, instead using her credits to go to Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, to read English. To many in Cambridge she may have seemed an unlikely student, with the kind of Essex accent still not often heard within the more traditional colleges, but it was for her sharp intellectual rigour and the breadth and depth of her passion for literature that she stood out, not for her accent.

After I completed my OU degree and my MA at Sheffield University, Caron and Chris urged me to apply to Cambridge for my PhD, something I would never have considered. Fired by Caron’s example, I went on to Wolfson College, Cambridge, and completed my PhD on Harrison in 1999. My life and career have turned out in ways I could not have imagined, had it not been for a chance encounter at an OU Summer School.

After graduating, Caron went on to teach for Lucy Cavendish and for many other Cambridge colleges, and began teaching for the OU in 2006. She loved teaching mature students, and they loved being taught by someone with the sort of life experience and worldview still too rare in academia.

Our ALs change lives, and Caron changed more lives than most. Many of her AL colleagues took to the tutor forums to express their admiration after her death. Roger Moss, who took over her A215 students when she went on sick leave, said ‘there’s a handful of writers in the group producing energetic and daring poems that actually sound as if they’re written in 2020’; Caron would have appreciated this as the finest possible testament to her teaching. Jo Barnden, another colleague, described Caron as ‘a wonderfully lively, entertaining, vibrant woman, who always educated us on poetry so eloquently’, which encapsulates her.

Caron was a truly gifted writer. She published three novels: Three Blind Mice (2001), described by Marian Keyes as ‘a dark and compelling love story of a genre that could be called East End noir’; Prohibitions (2004), a literary thriller again set in the East End; and Presenting … the Fabulous O’Learys (2017), a bold and imaginative take on King Lear, updated to the 1980s. Georges Perec is my hero (2015) showcased Caron’s innovative and compelling poetic voice(s). In the Editor’s Introduction to that volume, Mandy Pannett wrote:

I was intrigued by the title Georges Perec is my hero and asked Caron to elaborate: ‘I’m captivated by Perec’s questions about how we give common things a meaning, how we rescue the details from the assault of the Big Stuff. That’s what I want to do: rescue the details in which we live. The cigarette butts. The smudged lipstick. The ordinary that is so bloody odd’.

And that’s what she did in all her writing. Caron’s work didn’t get the wider audience and critical attention it deserved, which was (and is) a great pity. Her first two novels were published by a major publisher that didn’t seem to know what to do with her. Attempts to raise her profile weren’t always successful. An interview with a national newspaper around the time of the publication of Three Blind Mice was pulled for lack of space because of the death of a well-known entertainer, or as Caron put it to me in an email: ‘They aren’t publishing the interview ‘cos Harry Secombe went and died, the selfish sod!’. Caron’s poetry collection and her final novel were taken up by small publishers who ‘got’ her, and she felt happier there.

Caron’s partner Chris was my best man and Caron read Yeats and Donne beautifully at my wedding to Jill. Not to be morbid or anything, but I had her pencilled in to read poetry at my funeral when the time came, too, so this is a bit bloody inconvenient (bad taste, I know, but Caron didn’t mind a bit of bad taste). The lines I would have wanted her to read, from Tony Harrison’s translations of Palladas, I offer here as a tribute to Caron and to our friendship:

Death’s a debt that everybody owes,

And if you’ll last the night out no-one knows.

Learn your lesson then, and thank your stars

For wine and company and all-night bars.

Life careers gravewards at a breakneck rate,

So drink and love, and leave the rest to fate.

To those who knew Caron, hers is the most unreal of deaths in this most unreal of times. Whatever pain and sadness we are feeling, though, is nothing compared to that of Chris, and their two sons, Jude and Gabriel. I hope sometime soon her friends will be able to get together to celebrate her life. Caron was a remarkable woman, a unique writer, the best teacher many students ever had, and a wonderful friend.

Caron can be seen and heard reading some of her poetry on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r647drryS7g&t=38s

Some of Caron’s more recent poetry can be found here: https://thebluenib.com/caron-freeborn-new-poetry/

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