Fifth Birthday

Traces and prints; sometimes I wonder if you were ever there.

Inky traces. Sometimes I wonder if you ever were.

Five years ago you were a stone
marbled grey, except your piggy pink toes,
cold to touch.

Seasons shift. Constellations are
the pour of cream in a dark whirlpool.

I brought you leaves every September,
and tucked them up in your unmarked grave,
then sat on that bench as drops of water
magnified red and gold veins.

A sudden shift in the scene; you’re there.
Not stone, nor bone,
the ink is the shadowbut there
black eyes reflect blue-grey.

I saw that you were now corvid,
with wings, with black feathers
all over your body.

You landed on my lap, I bounced you on my knees.
When it was over, you bowed your head.
Then I let you go.

The research rollercoaster – final year of phd

Second year turned out to be a mixture of doubt and epiphany, success and strife. There were many moments of joy; I won a couple of prizes, I’ve run workshops, I’ve developed a bond with the borough of Rochdale, and I feel like I know the shape of my thesis even though I’m struggling at times to find the words.  At the same time there have been moments of family illness, random events, relationship tension, that seasonal sadness that bites in November and will not unclasp its jaws until March.

Those elusive words, sliding along the tracks, their sounds captured in the clouds.

Those elusive words, sliding along the tracks, their sounds captured in the clouds.

And this summer too has been a bit of a rollercoaster. Not a smooth rollercoaster, more like a Blackpool rollercoaster; sometimes fun, sometimes whiplash inducing painful.  It’s been hard to summon up the “WOO!” at times. And often I feel like I’m falling or failing, the lap bar barely keeping me secure.

Negotiating the metal tangle: materials that endure, some have been there before and will remain long after.

Negotiating the metal tangle: materials that endure, some have been there before and will remain long after, all will be ephemeral.

The research rollercoaster is an intriguing ride – possibly white knuckle – but ultimately the aim is to not only improve my own skills (I love learning, a little unsure as to whether I’m any good at it but I love it) but also to add to an argument, to try, in my own small way, to make a positive difference. It seems that there is a common assertion, or assumption, that a PhD is an isolated experience. It’s really not. Yes you are becoming a specialist in your own niche of a niche, but you do so in collaboration. If it were not for the encouragement of Dr David Cooper and the rest of my fantastic supervisory team (Doctors: Rachel Dickinson, Julie Armstrong, Kirsty Bunting and Jane Turner) I think I may have given up, accepted defeat. And I owe it to a borough – messy, weird, wonderful, challenging, complex - and the people within it who have been so generous with their time. And I owe it to my friends, all those loved ones. The shoulders of many, many giants giving me that boost and view (and what a view). Yes, a PhD represents your hard work, your figuring out, but no: you are not alone.

OK final year, I’m ready for you. Bring it.

*Clanking up the lift hill, arms in the air, ready for the drop*

Clanking up the lift hill, arms in the air, ready for the drop.

Read & Feed: research meets real life

Over August I’ve been involved in Smallbridge Library’s Read & Feed project. As it pertains to Rochdale there’s more about this on the Writing Rochdale blog. It’s not strictly PhD related – although I will be reflecting upon all work I’ve been doing over the last two and a bit years in the borough – I thought I’d mention it here too! It’s been an absolute privilege to share my practice and learn from the young people of Smallbridge.

First blog: reading, writing, social justice and sandwiches.owlSecond blog: Don’t call me Miss.

Dragon graphic novel

The final blog will up be after the celebration event on the 2nd Sept so keep an eye out!

Sunday Funday!

Click the picture to go to the MCBF website.

Click the picture to go to the MCBF website.

“Louder!” shouted the King of the Sea, “LOUDER!”. So Sadko plucked the strings of his gusli as hard as he could. Then the sea creatures joined in the party: the crabs started to pinch in time with their claws, the swordfish span and become a huge swirl of silver, clams cracked and snapped their calcified lips together. “Faster!” demanded the King of the Sea, “FASTER!” So Sadko played faster, and the creatures danced wildly. Suddenly, Volga Matushka shouted,”Stop! Stop! Sadko, can’t you see that the music is making a giant whirlpool and all the ships sailing across the world are caught in it? If you don’t stop they will surely be pulled down to the bottom of the ocean.”

In action: Sadko is seasick! Storytelling in the cosy Manchester Children's Book Festival Story Tent. Picture taken by Kaye Tew of MCBF. 17th April 2016.

In action: Sadko is seasick! Storytelling in the cosy Manchester Children’s Book Festival Story Tent. Picture taken by Kaye Tew of MCBF. 17th April 2016.

On Sunday, I told a tale based on a traditional Russian ballad of Sadko the musician and his unrequited love for Volga Matushka – the mightiest river of Russia, the longest river in Europe, one of the most beautiful of all rivers AND the daughter of the party-loving King of the Sea!  I was so chuffed to be invited by Manchester Metropolitan University’s Manchester Children’s Book Festival Team to share this story and sing songs with the children (and their mums and dads).

We had some good sea sick wobbling, loud partying, banging of musical instruments by the audience as we all tried to make sure that the King of the Sea was obeyed!  Pinguino, the penguin from Antarctica, got a few hugs as well.  (He’s quite a daredevil penguin and told me in secret that he loved the cuddles from the girls and boys and their parents. So, shhhh, don’t tell anyone I told you…)

What a lovely day and such a fab audience!  The event was well organised and I’m looking forward to popping into the next ones as a punter and will bring at least one of my army of nieces along :-)

This event is one of many leading up to an absolutely marvellous and magical looking Children’s Book Festival for June.  The Children’s Book Festival Fun Day on Saturday 25th June looks absolutely super!

Look what I found drifting in the waters of the Volga...

Look what I found drifting in the waters of the Volga…

Huge thanks to James and Amy for being the river Volga and to Stu from Hobgoblin Music Manchester who fixed up Sadko’s gusli!  There are a few versions of this story and mine was a combination of the story retold by Aaron Shepard and snippets from Baba Yaga stories (in my story – it is the Baba Yaga who curses the King of the Sea).  The lyrics and the song I sang were based on ‘The River Flows’ by Coope, Boyes, and Simpson.




The “Art” of Book Reviewing


(I devised this back in 2013 when working out what my scoring system should be for reviewing books for Starburst Magazine.  I still stand by it!)

I love reading: getting lost in an excellent narrative, being swept away for a memorable trip in a short story, or emotionally moved by poetic lyrics.  Wandering around in fantastical worlds of words.  I also like book reviewing; I’ve been done this for a few publications where the word count often forces a pithy response. I do have genre favourites: poetry, plays, books on education, science fiction, fantasy, non-fiction with a focus on social justice, short stories, and books which have an element of magical realism. However, I enjoy reading widely and WLTM exciting new books!

The thing that I’m not doing is true blogging on books; there are myriad good book bloggers writing sensible commentary elsewhere on the amorphous universe that is the Internet. Two of the best, in my opinion, are Juxtabook (solid reviewing and loads of links to everything book related) and The Book Stop (regularly updated with reviews, pretty and accessible WordPress site design, and excellent musings on the industry).

I believe that excellent book bloggers, like excellent literary critics, have the power to make or break a book. I do not hold the opinion that book bloggers harm traditional criticism. Instead, bloggers add another valid, and valuable, dimension to debate.

I seek brevity when reviewing, and try to approach a new, unread book with an open mind. However, book reviewing – like any art – is incredibly subjective; especially when it comes to scoring for a review. So, while I’m not a fan of quantifying a book with a number, I thought I’d explain my rationale when rating a book out of ten:

Top of the Pops!

5: Good storyline, entertaining with no intellectual engagement. I’d recommend that you get this book out from a library. Once.

6: Engaging book with some surprising elements. Original storyline and thinking. I’d get this out from a library again to re-read.

7: This book has a good narrative with a good ending or solid concept. I would buy this book.

8: Great book. Unique concept, good storyline (or fantastic verse). I would buy the book and recommend that others should buy it.

9: Excellent book. I would recommend it highly. I would buy copies for family and friends.

10: The book has blown me away. It is intelligent, engaging and exceptionally well crafted. I would hit the streets to hand out copies of this book. I will be wearing a sandwich board that says: “Read this book before you die.”

Any book receiving less than 5/10 was probably an endurance test for my eyes. I would not recommend it.

4: I made it to the end but it was a poor story with a weak ending. Why was this commissioned/self-published?!

3: Poor concept for a story with poor editing. Ow, my eyes.

2: Weak, poorly thought through storyline, hackneyed concept/s, weak to minimal editing. I never want to read this again.

1: Weak, poorly thought through storyline. The narrative is not dealt with in any satisfactory way. There is no evidence of editing. Reading this book made me feel like I had wasted precious hours of my life. I want those hours back.

0: Normally this would not be awarded – the book would have to be bilious, the writing unintelligible, and editing non-existent. I haven’t met a 0 rated book yet, there’s always a first time…

Becoming wild again: a week at Tŷ Newydd

I’ve never done a “proper” residential writing course before and, thanks to a combination of saving up and a credit card, last week I found myself with six other poets at Canolfan Ysgrifennu Tŷ Newydd on a course called ‘Writing the Wild’.

Morning poetry workshops were led by Robert Minhinnick and Pascale Petit each taking one turns.  I’m a bit of a fan of Pascale’s work and it’s always slightly nerve-racking to meet poets you admire.  Both poet-facilitators were lovely, the exercises thought-provoking and productive; I think it’s safe to say that some of us have poems that – with a little tweaking – could fly out to other homes.

On Wednesday evening we were treated to a reading from Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch reading from her collections.  I was intrigued by her piece Tango in Stanzas: book art, poetry, performance, music, and dance which is innovative, collaborative and inspiring.  Samantha is a poet who clearly pushes herself with her art and there’s a YouTube video of excerpts from Tango in Stanzas, however, I’d love to see a live performance. I managed to buy a copy of Banjo which I’m currently devouring.

I’m hoping that at least some of us keep in touch – there was such an energy in the group and I may have got teary a couple of times (chopping onions and writing poems).

“This is nothing new, the body count

of corpses, found in Cleveley

and on Pegwell Beach, near the hoverport.”


The above is an excerpt from the first draft of ‘Ovis Marina’, this is the poem’s “placeholder title”; it won’t be called this and this first stanza has already changed!  This poem was written during the final day’s exercise facilitated by Pascale.  We had to examine objects closely, principles drawn from poems by Alice Oswald and Louise Glück, and lose ourselves in an object.  Trawling a section of beach between Criccieth and Llanystumdwy we were tasked with finding such an object to engage with.  In my head I was looking for traces of bird life, but instead found a dead ewe who looked as if she’d fallen from the cliff.

Tŷ Newydd - taken 18th March 2016

Tŷ Newydd – taken 18th March 2016

If you’re considering ever doing a residential course I would say jump at the chance especially if there’s one at Tŷ Newydd that takes your fancy.   As you can see from the pictures above it’s in a very lovely part of the world, accommodation is warm and comfortable  - plus writing desks in the rooms, and the food is glorious and, of course, as locally sourced as possible.  Financial support is also available for the courses.

Poetry process and progress

Even when winter sadness nips, even when parents are ill, everyday I remind myself how lucky I am to be doing what I’m doing. To be working with who I work with  - genuinely fantastic, intelligent, fun, and intriguing people  - and to be encouraged to write! 

Today here’s a short blog post about process – my current “pencil only” notebook* is, as a friend put it, the “under the bonnet” bit of writing. (* I have different notebooks for different writing purposes!)  Thanks to the University’s Poetry in Practice sessions, and a theme challenge from Dr Sam Illingworth, I’ve written a  new poem – possibly not completely finished – in the form of a Ghazal (let’s call it a “sort of Ghazal“).  I thought I’d share my writing process for it in order to demonstrate how a piece progresses.  Have a peek under the bonnet!

 First pass - spot the cheesy rhyming scheme, scribbling out, the terrible handwriting.

First pass – spot the cheesy rhyming scheme, scribbling out, the terrible handwriting.


Second attempt - hmm, still scribbles and changes being made but it's beginning to take shape.

Second attempt – Hmmm. Still scribbles and changes being made – but it’s beginning to take shape.


Third go - perhaps this is nearly it!  The closest to the final thing...

Third go – perhaps this is nearly it! The closest to the final thing…


So, what’s your process?!


A liberated battery hen. Image from  (Creative Commons share license)

A liberated battery hen. Image from (Creative Commons share license)

Ghazal for the Battery Girls

No gilded life, still she tries to fly. Turn gold;

the sun is setting. Spark in her eye – turn gold.


Dusk is settling, her sisters: a feathered mass.

Hens compose a discordant cry.  Turn gold.


The liberators – silent shadows in black plumage -

snip razorwire in half-light, no one will die. Turn gold


when freedom is complete.  Battery barn empty of promises.

Re-homed as sunrise paints the sky, return gold.

That Question

red breeze in the leaves the annual musical

red breeze in the leaves the annual musical

When you ask that question:
a pause,
a nervous laugh,
the “no”
followed by
“yes, actually.”
The explanation,
a nervous laugh,
change the subject
like the leaves change
the yellow to red
caution to stop.

When the wind blows
the leaves fall
when the wind blows
everyone feels it
when the wind stops
only you do.

When you ask that question:
the crumpled paper feeling
behind the ribs.
It sounds
like leaves
beneath the feet;
seasonal gifts
on an unmarked grave.

When the wind blows
the leaves fall
when the wind blows
everyone feels it
when the wind stops
only you do.

Changing at Crewe: 2 years to go.

Crewe station, we've had times together you know...

Crewe station, we’ve had times together you know…

Today marks a year to the day since I meandered onto the Manchester Metropolitan University campus in Crewe, Cheshire. This friendly campus is a small place of green in Crewe with Valley Brook twisting past my office window and a soundscape of rustling trees, sparrowhawk bickering, and blackbird song. It’s the second year of my PhD study on the literary geographies of Rochdale. I still feel like there’s a lot to still be learned, however, I’ve picked up so much in the past year that it’s positively affected my creative practice somewhat; I’m a more confident in academic writing – a whole different beast to making stuff up or writing campaigning journalism – and I’m certainly a lot more confident when talking about my project. From an intensive three days of learning from a place writing workshop to presenting a paper with “Poo” in the title at the University of Idaho, it’s been a veritable whirlwind of a year! This year I’m hoping to learn about cartography and mapping literature (plus a little bit of coding while I’m at it), to being running those creative writing sessions mentioned in March and – all being well in getting prepared for it – get through that transfer process (that’s where you upgrade from MPhil to PhD level).

There’s still a lot of work to do in the next few months. So yes, I’m definitely changing at Crewe!

Impostor Syndrome and the “Imposter Syndrone”

Imposter Syndrome waspy "syndrone" as heavy-handed metaphor.

“Imposter Syndrome”, a waspy drone.

You may have had one of those days – or possibly weeks, months, or years – where you’re faced with the dreaded Inner Critic. Mine is a wasp – the “Imposter Syndrone” who drones on and on internally, constantly poking your brain with the “you’re not good/clever/attractive/bright enough; you will never succeed” stick. Or worse, bashing your conscience with the “there are more important things in this world than your paltry project” cricket bat.  Based on the feeling that someone is about to tap you on your shoulder and tell you that you don’t deserve to be where you are – this is common in PhD study (indeed, in anything really not just study; it’s just a relief to know that this is not an unusual thing as I’ve had to deal with this feeling for flipping years pre-PhD).

July has been a month where I’ve been dealing with “Imposter Syndrone” trying to piss its poison into the wildflowers I’m attempting to grow. A few of the seedlings have been failing this month as I’ve chosen to believe “Imposter Syndrone” – after all, it’s obvious that It is more accomplished than me with Its waspish waist, Its successful life of glittering prizes, Its quick witted way of zapping out put downs. Sometimes it’s worth downing tools – albeit briefly – and leave “Imposter Syndrone” chunnering on while popping out for a quick walk, or reading a book in a different room, or chatting to friends, peers and/or colleagues. Then try to begin enjoying the feeling that things are achievable – yeah, they may not change the shape of the universe, however, they are baby steps to being able to function as a human.

So because I cannot kill the wasp (when stinging, or squashed, wasps release a pheromone to invite its hymenoptera comrades to avenge their death) I drew this to cope with It.

“But you can’t draw!”
“Oh, I know that, Imposter Syndrone, but I’m pinning your ass down in pen and I don’t need to be able to draw to do that.”

Took a walk and a deep breath of the July air – albeit autumnal this is always a useful way to clear out those poisonous thoughts. Coming home, I reread this beautiful way of silencing that censor by author Rosie Garland who calls her whinging inner critic “Mavis”, which you can read here: Dealing with the internal critic Or A 12-Step Programme for Coping with Mavis.

I think Mavis and Imposter Syndrone need to get together sometime, possibly with the promise of strong tea and Nice biscuits, and are left emptily gossiping by the drying washing at the back of a 1950′s Manchester terrace with no one around to pay either of them any heed.