A lot of people have been asking me about themes in my work, especially for some podcasts I have appeared on. It really got me thinking. One obvious thing I know I'm fascinated by is memory. I love how the brain can lie to you, hide things from you - and that line between what you know and what you don't know consciously, unconsciously, and even subconsciously. I also find head trauma and changes to memory as a result really interesting.
I love books that really delve into this, such as 'Before I go to sleep' by SJ Watson. Also 'Regeneration' by Pat Barker, which is almost about remembering too much. Lastly, I love 'The Woman Before Me' by Ruth Dugdall. All of these books have elements about memory and trusting yourself (or not).
While I was thinking about this though, I also started thinking about other themes. I realised that my two novels have some characters who are especially detached from their emotions. Two characters in particular have little understanding of consequence, or if they do, they have a limited response to it. I started thinking about why I am interested in this.
A realisation hit me - I grew up with someone who would now been referred to as 'neurodiverse'. While at the time, they had no label and it wasn't until adulthood that they did. In contrast, I was always very emotional and often labelled 'too sensitive'. I remember it being upsetting then but now, I'm proud that I feel things so strongly. I think it makes it easier to write down emotions.
So back to my point, I wonder if my interest in characters who have limited emotional capacity (for whatever reason) might be connected to my life experiences. So when I tell people I don't tend to write about people I know, that perhaps on some level, I actually have been! It came as a shock to me in some ways. I hadn't thought about it before but there were many times in my life growing up where I tried to understand this person, their reactions or lack of, the way they didn't process things like I did. And maybe, in some strange way, this has snuck into my writing through the back door.
What themes are in your novels/poems? Are they things you're aware of? Maybe there's something in there that you didn't know you were exploring, much like me!
You can listen to me speaking on the Writing for Wellness podcast
You can also listen to me speaking on the Full House Lit Mag podcast (time - 31:51)
Q: Can you tell me a bit about yourself and your writing?
Wayward Voyage, based on real life pirate Anne Bonny, is my debut novel. I’ve always been a reader and I have a background in journalism, dance and theatre and love film. I first heard about pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read more than twenty years ago and was fascinated by these women embodying ‘girl power’. I didn’t have the slightest ambition to write about them, but I wanted to find out more. This was before the first Pirates of the Caribbean film came out, there were few pirate books in print, and the internet was in its infancy. I first wrote Wayward Voyage as a screenplay but getting screenplays read, never mind produced, is a long shot. Years later I returned to the story and wondered if I had it in me to write a novel. I love world building, with character and plot led stories. And I love research.
I revisited many books (political history, social history, sailing in the age of sail). I returned to the National Archives at Kew, South London, to access historical documents and letters from Woodes Rogers who was Governor of The Bahama’s at this period. Snippets of what he actually wrote made their way into my book. It was at the archives that I first handled an original copy of the 1720’s pirates’ trial in Jamaica.
But research wasn’t all about reading. Years ago, I signed on as voyage crew on the Lord Nelson, a tall ship owned by the Jubilee Sailing Trust. That week sailing in the Canary Islands learning to handle ropes and going aloft to take in or drop sails will stick in my mind forever. You are in a world of your own out there. I recall my wobbly legs going aloft for the first time and inching tentatively along the lower yardarm. By the end of the week, I had ventured to furthest reaches of the higher yard. I make use of this experience describing Anne’s first time aloft.
In summer of 2019 I visited South Carolina to walk in the steps of Anne Bonny and visited plantations to get a feel for life in colonial America (though these plantation houses date from a much later period).
Q: Which book/s have you read at least 3 times?
These come to mind... a real mix: To Kill A Mocking Bird; A prayer for Owen Meany; Pride and Prejudice; Middlemarch; Anne of Green Gables.
Q: Is there a writer you would love to meet? Who and why?
John Irving. Before I started writing I would think to myself “if I were ever to write I would love to write like he does”. Plot, character, finding that sweet spot between literary and commercial appeal. I wish!
Q: What’s your least favourite part of the writing process?
I guess starting a new scene is difficult. That moment of sitting before a blank sheet. You are getting to know your characters but you don’t yet know them intimately. You are getting to feel your way through your story, but its still blurry. But quite honestly, I love it all!
Q: How would you describe your writing style? Are you a plotter or a pantser? Do you write everyday or whenever the moment strikes you?
I’m a planner. Originally, when Wayward Voyage was a screenplay, I wrote scenes on file cards and storyboarded them across my floor, then I worked systematically through them card by card. Later, writing and rewriting my novel I found it useful to create a spreadsheet with scene-by-scene analysis. (What is the scene about? Does it take the story forward? Does it need changing/moving/deleting?) That document ended up more than 50 pages but was a useful tool. I have used a similar approach with next books.
I have a morning routine. Yoga for an hour; breakfast; desk/computer. Since I started writing, I have lived in different houses but always had my own writing room. Where we live now, in south west London, I’ve set up a desk in our bedroom, so this is a dual-purpose space. It is light, overlooking the back garden, and I spend far too many hours here! Most weekdays I am at my desk any time from 9 and, mid-morning coffee break aside, work through to about 1 pm. Afternoons I may research, do other related activities read other books and make time to go for a walk.
Q: What advice would you give a new writer?
Don’t give up. If one route doesn’t work out, try another. Celebrate finishing your first draft, take a break, then re-write. Again. Again. And, don’t leap to accept a publishing offer. Take your time and do your research.
A decade ago, I made a documentary film about older flamenco dancers in the UK. Just like with the story of Anne and Mary, I first touted my flamenco idea to various TV commissioning companies I knew but was told it wasn’t interesting enough for a broad audience. I took stock. I knew loads about dance and flamenco; knew how to put a story together; had experience as a producer, so figured I could learn the other bits. I met up with a documentary film student and – hey – we had a team. I made my low budget documentary and have never regretted it. The old dancers are passing and the Soho of post-war London is passing but I have captured a valuable social and cultural record of this period. The film was shown at a film festival and is now shared freely on YouTube. I guess money doesn’t matter so much but doing things I love matters mightily. It was the same with dance when I was younger.
So how does this sum up?
Q: What inspires you?
Multi-layered stories in film and book. Uplifting and informative documentaries and biographies. I’ve just finished reading In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park about her escape from North Korea. And learning. I want to continue learning throughout my life.
Q: Tell us about your latest work.
My next novel, Blind Eye, an environmental thriller, is about illegal logging from tropical rainforests and government collusion. This will come out in autumn. My partner is a founder member of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) so through him I reached out to a lot of specialists for advice. This also started out as a screenplay 15 years ago and I recently updated it and reworked. My film version was awarded joint first prize in the 2020 Green Stories Screenplay Competition.
Q: Where can we find out more about you and/or your book?
Links to retailers. Info about myself. Information for Books Clubs, including quick research links and a PDF to download with topics and questions. I invite readers to up for a monthly newsletter where I can delve into a topic, relevant to my writing, that interests me: https://www.annamholmes.com/newsletter
https://twitter.com/AnnaMHolmes_ Just starting started. Help me grow my community.
This collection is a fragmented history of the poet's own father and the MG Rover car site in Longbridge, Birmingham. From the beginning there's a foreboding of bad times with the visual poem Identity, which borrows lines from redevelopment plans for the site and reinforces the tragedy of these formal documents with a 'history' column. The poem ends with, 'Is this the right QR code for hidden history?' Thus, emphasising how her family's and others' histories were completely forgotten when it came to the decision that was made to close the factory.
Throughout, we hear Wareham Morris' father's voice in personal snippets that seem to be from his perspective, talking about his reluctant decision to take the job, falling into a role that ultimately became who he was, only for it to be erased by a decision made by a removed entity. This is almost the worst sadness - that her father eventually slotted in at the factory, only for his identity to be stripped away like the car parts featured in some of the poems.
I loved the playing with spacing, word weight and form in places. Some pieces felt like diagrams or instruction manuals, which added to the context of the pieces. In making a kind of instruction manual, this collection almost feels like a way for those betrayed by the closure (and their families), to begin to understand who they are and what they can be in the new roles they have been forced to adopt.
Some poems are an onslaught of words and images upon words and images, much like a production line that's hard to stop, again mirroring the factory and the workers who in one poem, become lines and lines of 'ants ants ants' marching out of the factory. In her poem, Metro, she highlights the pressure of the workers: ‘Chaps collapsed on the track having heart attacks, had to get men working on the track next to the ambulance just to keep it going and another one whizzzzzzing.’ What struck me also was how the production line was seemingly relentless but Wareham Morris punctuated these stories with emotion and humanity.
This collection is a fragmented and pensive exploration of a community betrayed, which is drawn together by the relationship between father and daughter. The mechanisms of the factory are ever-present in the words that slowly falter to an indeterminate stop with the final lines, ‘it had an end and we / alive, in reality / matching your - / some kind of / can hitch our memory’. There are gaps left to the readers in these lines, as though there’s a danger that information will be lost forever but there’s also a suggestion that even though the factory is closed, it feels as though the memories of the time are still very much present in the minds of those who have a connection to the site.
I enjoyed seeing Wareham Morris play with words, presentation and spacing in this collection. What’s also great is when there’s a clear backbone to a collection, which was obvious from the title, ‘Making Tracks’, which was a reoccurring theme throughout. I will be seeking out more writing by Wareham Morris, and personally, it’s nice to see other mums producing experimental writing!
To read more and buy Making Tracks, please visit:
Follow Katy on Twitter: @katy_wm
Lydia Unsworth's chapbook, Yield, is described as 'mashed together', 'a call-and-response with the Tao Te Ching' and 'a stretch back and forth between, across, and within the texts' written over a period of one month. To me, they felt like streams of consciousness at times, arguments and counter-arguments, whilst also exploring and redefining meaning.
There was a strong call of nature in the pieces, especially in relation to how humans interact with it. For instance, I loved lines such as, 'I want to trample over 7000 hectares of your crops, take what I need,' and 'When I die, leave me in a sun-roofed sinkhole, fondue to your foundations.' The poems are full of need, fervent passion and melancholy. Nature is sometimes 'Up to no good,' or wistful through the eyes of art: 'Stars like gasps of not.' I loved the deep embedded feel of nature amidst the strange pull to city life, and a constant cycle of being drawn back to nature in one way or another: 'Take me to a field of weeds, so that I, too, can untether.'
Relationships were also closely linked with the natural world, mirroring its unyielding power. For instance, in Therefore, Look, she writes, 'Come on, let us foot it out of here together, real as crops, tall grass in our eyes and sails.' There are also darker images linked with the earth and water: 'Drown me in your middle-ground, and, 'I grasp the formless form, that is, the gulf (gulp), that lies (dare I?) between us, and what I want is thick and fast and full of guts and lust and anything congealed enough to be called stuff.' This last line is almost medical and embedded, which brings me onto another thread in Yield: motherhood.
Thoughts on what it means to be a mother seem peppered throughout this pamphlet. From discussing a child in relation to 'Raw leaves... all worryingly wild,' to how Unsworth is 'mud and gory splattered' but gathers up 'her offspring.' In these parts, the very real and difficult aspects of parenting seem to be emphasized. I also felt at points that some of it was a mother talking to her child, almost like a fable on life in poetry form, which gave Yield a tender thread.
The form of writing and Unsworth's style also gave way to the examination of meaning and words. A big concern was focused on being misinterpreted, either intentionally using absurdity and humour, or misunderstood due to others’ interpretations. For example,
'I said it... but I did not say it well,' in relation to legislation, alluding to the mistakes that can be made by those taking your words in the wrong way. Unsworth even offers a summary of herself in one poem: 'I am just a girl who says what she feels, who picks up indiscriminate after-objects on the beach, who still turns her head a touch too quickly if somebody calls her (a) name.'
Amidst all the jarring and fantastic images, the art and nature, the comments on everyday life, one of my favourite lines is, 'Shine a line in every corner of my heart,' which was simple but I think a good reflection of these poems. Underneath and in-between all the words, even the absurd commentary, was a strong sense of heart binding it all together.
To read more and buy a copy of Yield, visit the KFS website
Follow Lydia on Twitter: @lydiowanie
Isabelle Kenyon’s pamphlet, Growing Pains (published by Indigo Dreams in 2020), is an exploration of childhood, womanhood and personal value. What’s great about Kenyon’s poems is how they are full of contradictions, for instance in her poem When the worms came, she flits between the innocence and feral nature of children in one short poem. There are the ‘jackals, brandishing sticks’ alongside those who ‘offered their squatting form / a shield’. She also has the delightful ability to give us a dark turn, for instance in the same poem, which ends with ‘and enacted Lord of the Flies / with their worms as Piggy.’
While Kenyon also discusses what it means to be a woman and how society often views them in This is a man’s, man’s, man’s world: ‘measured for worth… from hip to hip to birth a child / hymen intact?’ While in Value, she talks about women’s worth being judged by ‘the number of boys in bed… the lack of ring on my finger… the space between my thighs’. She encapsulates so many of the feelings women experience on a daily basis, while also throwing in some humour. For instance, in The Periodic Table, she acknowledges how a woman’s body can invoke fear in men, especially in relation to periods. In this simple poem, Kenyon jokes about telling her brother about bleeding from the uterus and how ‘(he’ll thank me one day)’.
Moreover, Kenyon also confronts some of the modern issues we have in the world. From being defined and tracked by our search history and background (‘Value: ‘Soon I am / my search history’), loneliness in an adult world (Spaces: ‘crying in a cubicle quietly’), the pressure to earn money (Sometimes I feel so alive with you I can’t breathe: ‘£ is a weary art’), and consent (Cryptic Consent: ‘No is a / sliding scale you negotiated’).
Kenyon’s pamphlet is teeming with images, small moments described in detail, but also big concepts and issues, leaving the readers wanting more. She expresses herself with honesty and a mixture of delicacy and sharpness, which is not an easy task!
I look forward to reading more of her work in the future.
To read more and buy a copy of Growing Pains , visit: Fly on the Wall Press (for a signed copy!)
Follow Isabelle on Twitter: @kenyon_isabelle
Recently, I was lucky enough to be sent a review copy of Matthew Haigh’s collection, Death Magazine, published by Salt (2019). From the outset, readers are confronted by a quote from J. G. Ballard, ‘How do we make sense of this ceaseless flow of advertising and publicity, news and entertainment, where presidential campaigns and moon voyages are presented in terms indistinguishable from the launch of a new candy bar or deodorant?’ From this springboard, Haigh’s poems encapsulate his own thoughts intertwined with words taken from various media, also mixed with reflection, absurdity and tenderness.
Separated into sections, including ‘fitness’, ‘features’, ‘lifestyle’, ‘beauty’, ‘wellness’ and ‘advice’, it uses its structure to offer reflection on the magazine form to highlight the confusing messages readers often receive from the media and the world around them. As the Ballard quote expresses, with so many messages, all being merged regardless of importance, how do we begin to decipher anything real?
The introductory poem 6 essential tips for transferring your consciousness to the cloud is the perfect way to begin the collection. Using a modern concept of the cloud, Haigh injects humour and absurdity into the concept by discussing it in terms of humans having no body. For instance, I really enjoyed parts such as, ‘a look at the products you won’t be using when you have no skin’ and ‘The Eternity Itch: preparing for a life without orgasm’. Moreover, I loved the hanging ending, ‘I Can’t Exist Like This: what to do when’, highlighting the lack of ideas about where exactly we are heading as humans in the face of such developments and progress.
The other thing I loved about Haigh’s poems are the moments of tenderness, such as in We Will Not Become the Cloud, the Cloud Will Become Us, when he writes, ‘51%...... I’d be hanged in some places just for loving him’. Also, in How Adored Is the Pink Authority, when he writes, ‘I adore the sight of you in a dressing gown, but only via a mirror,’ which is both loving and self-conscious all at once.
The interesting thread throughout is the links to technology and how it bleeds into every aspect of our lives. For instance, in Treating Depression with H. R. Giger, he says, ‘I only wonder: is beauty cold as data? Is beauty in data – am I supposed to see beauty in a camel spider?’ This is in reference to watching YouTube videos when feeling depressed, which is a commonplace experience and does really make the readers wonder what we are meant to take from watching odd videos online, as most of us do at some point or another! Another great poem is to his deceased aunt in relation to looking after the Sims characters she has left behind, in which he talks about a character whose chip fan goes on fire and she cries, writing ‘I can’t console her’. This is a great mirror of how he probably felt writing about the loss of his aunt, which is an interesting method of mourning someone, as well as the use of ‘console’, which links with grief and technology simultaneously.
There is also a fascination with identity and maleness. The sometimes violent and harsh aspects of human identity are presented through the everyday, for example when he discusses a man having a nightmare in We Are like the Dreamer who Dreamer and Then Lives Inside the Dream, writing ‘as he runs he knows for certain that the only way to feel this brutally alive is if something huge really did attack.’ Furthermore, in Reptile Your Relationship, he says, ‘You may have been grotesque for some time’, as though an uncomfortable truth has slowly been realised. Though, the clever aspect of this is after a whole poem of suspicion and uncertainty, Haigh finishes with, ‘If any of these scenarios applies to you, shrug.’ Thus, presenting an interesting turn. With regard to maleness, this is present throughout. Though there is a section entitled ‘advice’, which takes on a Q&A style, offering comments such as, ‘Modern day totems perpetuate unrealistic goals by shaming men into inadequacy’ and ‘We consistently encourage men to get a grip’, and lastly, ‘I am a downloaded copy of my entire life’. Maleness is not a concrete concept here and it’s interesting to see reflections on a new definition of what being a man could be.
This collection offers an exploration of the consciousness, absurdity, oddness and complexities experienced as a modern man, and, a modern human. Some of the images and juxtapositions had me laughing, while others were so perceptive, they triggered knowingness or sadness.
I hugely recommend it and thanks to Matthew for the read!
To read more and buy, visit:
Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattHaighPoetry