I’ve just finished another online course hosted by the Poetry SchoolAccidental Love Poems with David Tait.

Image courtesy of The Poetry School

Founded in 1997 by poets Jane Duran, Mimi Khalvati and Pascale Petit, the Poetry School is a plethora of all things poetry and the UK’s largest provider of poetry education. It offers a variety of courses of differing lengths and levels, with a new program published each term. I opt for the international courses using its online platform CAMPUS, as there’s no live chat allowing me to write and feed back on work at a time to suit before each deadline.

David is a British-born poet working as a teacher in China and I’ve completed a previous course by him that focused on cities. The prompts have been wonderful and inspired some incredible work, and I’m rather happy with my own batch of poems produced. Before this I did Writing Emotion with Rebecca Tamás and next term I’ve signed up for Elena Karina Byrne‘s Ekphrasis, Art and Translation.

What I love about these courses is discovering new poets, not just through fellow students, but through the assignments and reading set, plus feedback is invaluable, both honing your skills providing it and applying it to your work. And of course they drive you to write! So if you haven’t already, check out the Poetry School, if only to explore the variety of resources and information available.

Writing about experience is extremely cathartic, removing the noise in the head, expressing what never makes it into conversation, and so being a poet it was only natural for me to write about my breast cancer journey, which thanks to Ginninderra Press, forms a chapbook of poems called Venus.

Starting with diagnosis, it charts the path I took – five months of chemotherapy, a mastectomy, six weeks of radiotherapy every day – and still take with daily anti-hormones and a six-monthly bone drug infusion. The outcome was a new me, an alive me, with a different perspective and sense of purpose. (The image on the front by the way, is the pattern from what became my chemo pants, which I’d planned to ceremoniously burn at the end of active treatment, but they’re extremely comfortable!).

I follow in the footsteps of many fine poets who’ve also written about their own experiences – Jo Shapcott’s Of Mutability and Sharon Black’s To Know Bedrock whose launch I attended in London in 2011, plus a fascinating collaboration between Irish poets in Bosom Pals, to name a few. With one in eight women diagnosed with the disease, it’s a common condition with voice.

I’ve given copies to my doctor, specialist and oncologist as I’m keen for it to reach other women embarking on the same journey as a source of comfort, a source of you can do this.

Anniversary

A year ago today my world was smashed
by a man in a suit and wire-rimmed glasses.
His voice was small and grew smaller.

Over the next nine months I lost my aversion
to needles and swallowing tablets
found I preferred my hair short.

So I take my husband out to dinner
like some macabre anniversary
because I feel the need to mark this path

from a place that howled to one made of bricks
where I savour the simplest things –
the sharpness of orange juice in the morning

how fast I can cycle with the wind behind me
watching the sun slip into the sea.

from Venus, Ginninderra Press 2022

Port Adelaide hosted its inaugural writers’ festival this weekend themed ‘Living Landscapes‘ in the historic Hart Mill Precinct, with an impressive line up and books courtesy of Matilda Bookshop.

Living Landscape Writers’ Festival Day One Program

Hosted in conjunction with Writers SA, the program comprised talks and readings examining our relationship with the environment and the role it plays in art, followed by a series of workshops to learn the craft of nature writing. The venue was perfect, set beside the beautiful Port River, home to a variety of life, including dolphins.

I attended the afternoon sessions, the first a panel discussion on ‘Writing the Changing Landscape’ with Ali Cobby Eckermann, Inga Simpson and Jill Jones, facilitated by Writers SA Director, Jessica Alice. It was fascinating to learn about their connection with country, the living world around them and how they capture and express this in their work, often giving voice to the damage we’re doing. Ali spoke about healthy moments and how childhood homes become unrecognisable. Inga grew up on a farm and sought solitude to develop her work. Jill shared examples of mindful suburban walking without distraction. There was talk of the creature’s we’re responsible for, how nature is giving us the solutions and a request for us to be curious again. But the most profound words for me were these when discussing those in power:

Just because you have the money, doesn’t mean you hold the riches.

Ali Cobby Eckermann
Molly Munro and Hannah Kent

The next session was a conversation between Molly Munro and Hannah Kent exploring ‘Nature as Character’. Molly echoed attendance to country and explained how Kangaroo Island, the setting for her latest work, is the last spiritual stopping place for indigenous cultures in South Australia. Hannah referred to the ‘livingness of things’ and shared her intimate connection with the landscape of Iceland where her first novel was set. Both stressed the importance of place in their work, how it must be more than a backdrop to a story to engage not just their readers, but themselves too. They also shared writers who have influenced their writing and that’s one of many things I love about these events, the reading recommendations you leave with, where you discover new writers and work, thought and theory.

I had booked Rachael Mead’s workshop – ‘Writing the Landscape anew through Poetry’ – today, but a deadline snuck up on me so unfortunately I had to cancel. Yesterday was a memorable afternoon, which left me deeply thoughtful, reminding me again how glad I am that I grew up when I did, with a childhood outside exploring nature, back when seasons were sure of themselves.

April’s already here and I haven’t blogged or published, but I have been writing. One of my monthly poetry groups has resurrected itself, albeit online, and I’m near completion of another Poetry School course called Writing Emotion: Contemporary Confessional Poetry.

image courtesy of The Poetry School

Facilitated by Rebecca Tamás, author of the poetry collection WITCH, a blend of feminist exploration and occult expression published by Penned in the Margins, this course invites us to give breath and bone to some difficult stuff, to give it a voice. Over five fortnightly assignments and reading the likes of Sylvia Plath, Sharon Olds and Warsan Shire, we are challenged to tackle experiences and feelings through the safety of prompts, such as masks, spells and play. The emphasis, however, is on an outward view; to share intimacies the reader can connect with and relate to, so they experience our emotion as their own.

It’s not surprising that with recent events, the poems I’ve produced reference the invasion of Ukraine and climate change (both wars involving humankind and no winners), one of which was my first specular, a challenge in itself, but a satisfying one. I have been surprised though with where the prompts have taken me, for example, what starts off as a poem about the man in the moon morphs into something else entirely, weaving in elements from my past I thought I’d tidied, which is the power of confessional poetry I guess, catharsis at its best.

Not Very Quiet (NVQ) launched their anthology Thursday evening, edited by the journal’s founders Moya Pacey and Sandra Renew, and published by Recent Work Press.

Poems were selected from eight issues of the twice-yearly online journal and I was thrilled to have one of mine included, thrilled even more when asked to read it at the launch. This is a powerful collection of women’s poetry from across the world, giving voice to pertinent issues – same-sex marriage, the #MeToo movement, the global pandemic and devastating bush fires to name a few – and sharing fascinating insights into what it means to be human.

Past guest editors – Anita Patel, Tricia Dearborn, Lisa Brockwell, Anne Casey, K A Nelson – also read their work, aswell as Moya and Sandra. Each issue of the journal invited submissions to respond to a provocation. My poem appeared in the first issue, which called for reflections on Gloria Steinem’s Women’s March Speech, reprinted below:

The camel and the straw

When there’s nothing left to say you eat
knock back the red wine you ordered
begin the cigars I hate.

My mouth is full with all that you said
and I’m too damned polite to do the napkin thing
spit out the one line I can’t swallow.

So I smile
no teeth
while inside I pack up and leave you.

(First published in Not Very Quiet; Issue 1, September 2017)

The anthology celebrates the end of NVQ’s publication, leaving the space open for others to continue to address gender bias in poetry publishing because in the words of Gloria Steinem, “women must act.”

Last Sunday I had two readings – one in the US in the morning, the other in the UK in the evening – oh the beauty of Zoom and time zones!

Image courtesy of The Poetry Box

The Poetry Box is based in Portland, Oregon publishing books and literary journals, and hosting launches and poetry readings. Headed by Shawn Aveningo Sanders and her partner Robert, they also publish The Poeming Pigeon twice a year, an internal literary journal of poetry with and without themes. One of my poems was selected for the current issue, From Pandemic to Protest, launched online with over 30 poets reading their work on these topics and everything in between, including politics, the climate crisis and wildfires. My poem was a found one about the Australian bush fires sourced from an article that appeared in The Guardian last year, my first found poem to be published.

Image courtesy of Cath Drake

Cath Drake is an Australian poet based in London and hosts The Verandah focusing on poetry, mindfulness and creative projects, the current being Who are We Now? UK and Australian poets exploring courageous connections with land and people in the 2020s. Having just finished one of Cath’s six-monthly poetry feedback groups, the writing prompts encouraged us to explore these connections, so my piece was inspired by the succulents in our garden, which took me back to my nan’s. There were eleven readers all up, with Sarah Holland-Batt as the featured one, who has just published Fishing for Lightening: The Spark of Poetry and has another collection forthcoming.

Both readings were recorded, so I hope to share them when available. It was wonderful to connect with so many poets all over the world and hear their work. The voice of poetry is a powerful one.

Hosted by Red Room Poetry as part of their new initiative Poetry Month, I zoomed into a workshop by Tony Birch – ‘Everything is everything’.

Image courtesy of Red Room Poetry

Poetry Month is all about celebrating Australian poetry, poets and publishers, and Tony is one of its finest poets. Author of three novels, including White Girl, winner of the 2020 NSW Premier’s Award for Indigenous Writing, and short story collections in addition to poetry, Tony is also an activist, historian and essayist.

The workshop focused on simplicity; the paring back of a poem to its bones to let it breathe and quietly be. Tony showcased the work of Agnes Martin (painter) and Alice Walker (poet) among other artists, sharing his method of holding a poem and not releasing it until it’s ready to be formed. And form really is key, something not to be forced, with Tony admitting he knows little about the technicality of poetry.

You can have the greatest technique but if the poem doesn’t have heart, it’s vacuous.

Tony Birch

Reiteration, writing body, themes of country, family and blood, Tony shared his own work as well as others, explaining how he often revisits poems to discover another layer. Referring to himself as a writing block plumber, Tony gave us prompts to try, one of which was to take a favourite photo and capture an impression of it rather than an exactness.

Tony was incredibly generous with his time, knowledge and skill, and answered questions throughout. We even got to see his writing desk! And what I love about these sorts of insightful workshops is being introduced to new work, new ways of seeing and of course the inevitable additions to an ever-growing wish list.

So the other writing course I’m now halfway through is a monthly Advanced Poetry Feedback Workshop facilitated by Cath Drake via Zoom.

Image courtesy of Cath Drake

Originally from Australia, Cath is based in London and has been widely published. Sleeping with Rivers won the 2013 Mslexia Poetry Pamphlet Prize and The Shaking City from Seren Books was commended by the Forward Prizes for Poetry in 2020. Both are brilliant reads.

Cath runs two of these workshops over 6 months and it’s an intimate group of six poets; three from Australia and three from the UK. We submit a poem for feedback and Cath shares a contemporary one for discussion, as well as a prompt for next time. And the format is effective – someone volunteers to read the poem, we hear it from the poet who then mutes themselves while we discuss what works and what doesn’t, returning to the poet for their thoughts at the end.

Let’s make a good poem better!

This is Cath’s motto and her comments are perceptive and intuitive, encouraging us to review form, line breaks, syntax and meaning. The three poems I’ve submitted so far have been improved going through this process, two of which will be included in my next collection about my breast cancer experience. Cath is also organising readings later this year as part of the Where are we now? series, exploring connections to people and place, when we’ll get to read what we’ve written alongside some big names. This I’m looking forward to.

To satisfy the forever-hungry poet in me, I enrolled in two courses and am halfway through the first, Hearing Voices, through the Poetry School.

Image courtesy of the Poetry School

Run online via CAMPUS, the school’s social platform, five assignments are set over 10 weeks with no live chats, which makes it ideal for us international students. The tutor is Kathryn Simmonds, a British poet and short story writer with her most recent collection, The Visitations, published by Seren.

Inspiration for the course came from Tony Hoagland’s The Art of Voice: Poetic Principles and Practice and Kathryn shared this quote from the American poet in the first assignment:

One of the most difficult to define elements in poetry is voice, the distinctive linguistic presentation of an individual speaker…When we hear a distinctive voice in a poem, our full attention is aroused and engaged, because we suspect that here, now, at last, we may learn how someone else does it – that is, how they live, breathe, think, feel, and talk.

The prompts have produced some amazing work and I love being introduced to new poets. The first assignment focused on our voices, the second those of family and the third, voice and vulnerability. So far my poems explore my recent cancer experience and no doubt will form part of the collection I’m developing. I’ll share details of the second course shortly but in the meantime, never stop learning I say.

A good prose poem is something quite unique and who better to teach its essentials than two of its finest poets – Cassandra Atherton and Paul Hetherington.

Image courtesy of Cath Drake

Hosted by brilliant Australian UK-based poet Cath Drake as part of her poetry masterclass series, Cassandra and Paul shared the main features of a prose poem, what sets it apart from flash fiction and poetic prose, as well as some examples. The class also had chance to draft their own prose poems, which I struggled with as I can’t always write on demand, however it did give me ideas.

I met Cassandra and Paul at a Poetry On The Move Festival in Canberra a few years ago. Their work in this area is extensive and they’ve recently edited The Anthology of Australian Prose Poetry published by Melbourne University Press, which I was fortunate enough to be shortlisted for, but my work sadly didn’t make the final cut.

Their energy and enthusiasm for prose poetry is contagious and has spurred me to explore the form further, because I’m intrigued with its dichotomy of being fragmentary and a stand-alone narrative, like a snapshot of some larger work. So my aim is to practice with Cassandra’s advice in mind – a good prose poem should leave you barking like a dog at the moon.

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