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!

Imposter Syndrome

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.

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.

Beats, blocks, and poetry

This week my dad went into hospital once again. He was diagnosed with congestive heart failure in February 2010. Heart failure. Where that organ – so attributed to romantic whimsy – cannot cope with pumping the blood around the body as the vessels are weakened. My dad has been smoking for about half a century – which has probably been the major contributor. On Wednesday he had a pacemaker put in – thank you National Health Service – and boasts about being “semi-bionic”. My dad has arrhythmia – where the regular dance of the heart is irregular leading to dizziness, the need for a rainbow’s worth of colourful pills. The pacemaker that he had put in on Wednesday means that this cocktail of drugs can be slimmed down, and that the device will “nudge” his heart into a more regular beat. He’s OK which is the important thing. For now.

This week, then, has been a bit of a write-off in terms of work; worry has lead to writer’s block. As an academic-in-training, there are large amounts of words to compose, papers to sculpt and script, a short film to edit. All are put to one side as the parent pops into the head…

So, not brilliant but that’s what urban nature is for – to help stomp out your feelings, to breathe the wind that slips through willow and silver birch. To walk off that grief. To share your tears with spring budding trees and the kingfisher that skims over a trolley dumped in the Mersey.

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A brief wander along a different route, followed by a coffee and writing session at Rhode Island Coffee. Forced to pick up a pencil and notebook in mental payment for this caffeinated treat. Using the prompt from NaPoWriMo day 16, this is a poem written in the form of a terzanelle – I’ve not written in this form before, it’s rather lovely to work with. (The poem isn’t one of my favourites that I’ve written, but hey, it’s an exercise!)

Insomniac Hours

Some things are better off said unsaid.
(I wish that I’d told you how much I loved you.)
Some things are better off left unsaid

or left in the head. I’m buried deep in blue,
there are oceans more shallow than this regret.
I wish that I’d told you how much I loved you.

Insomniac hours, eyes dried with sleep debt,
I lie on my back count the cars that drive past.
(There are oceans more shallow than this regret.)

Sleepless for decades? I wonder how long this will last.
The ceiling flickers with bright, coloured light,
I lie on my back count the cars that drive past.

The colours blend into a brilliant white,
I count the times that I’ve been tongue-tied.
The ceiling flickers with bright, coloured light.

I wish that I’d done more, I wish that I’d tried -
some things are better off left unsaid –
I count the times that I’ve been tongue-tied.
Some things are better off left unsaid.

NaPoWriMo #2 – Dreamless City (Brooklyn Bridge Nocturne)

Today a translation for NaPoWriMo day 2 (following someone else’s suggestion this morning)! I’ve been learning Spanish over the past couple of years, but started taking it a bit more seriously this year. Here’s a translation of one of Spain’s finest poets – Federico García Lorca. (I apologise in advance if it’s a bit surreal, this is all my own translation!)

No sleep for anyone

No sleep for anyone

Dreamless City (Brooklyn Bridge)
No sleep for anyone. Nobody, nobody.
No sleep for anyone.
The moon creatures scent and hover above their shelter.
Iguanas will come, living and biting men who will not dream
and what flees with a broken heart around corners
an incredible crocodile still low has the tender protest of the stars.
No sleep for the world’s nobody. Nobody, nobody.
No sleep for anyone.
Well a dream in the cemetery far away
they mourned for three years
because their knees were dry in the passage
and the boy they buried yesterday they cried so much
it was a necessary call for the dogs were silenced.
Life is not a dream. Alert! Alert! Alert!
We fall off ladders capture the humid earth
or rise and sharpen the snow with a chorus of dead dahlias.
Yet there is no forgetfulness, nor dreaming:
fresh meat. The kiss concerns the mouths
in a morning of recent veins
and what mourning, sympathise with the sympathisers without interruption
and what fear of death leaves their men.

One day
the horses living in the bars
and the furious ants
attack the sweet, yellow heaven of refugees with cow eyes.
Another day
we go and resurrect preserved butterflies
along a passage of grey sponge
we go, our wedding rings sparkle and well the roses on our tongues.
Alert! Alert! Alert!
What guarded footprints claw and the downpour
those boys that cry and don’t know the invention of the bridge
or those dead where they had a head and a shoe,
the wall has leaves has iguanas and tills hope
where hope is bear teeth
where hope is the mummified hand of a boy
and the camel skin the sea urchin with a violent blue shiver.
No sleep for anyone. Nobody, nobody.
No sleep for anyone.
But whether someone closes their eyes.
Whip! My boys! Whip!
The beech tree is a panorama of open eyes
and bitter wounds alight.
No sleep for the world’s nobody. Nobody, nobody.
No the good say.
No sleep for anyone.
But yes, whether you have a surplus night of temple moss,
open the scuttle see under the moon
the fake cup, the poison and the theatre’s skull.


Ciudad sin sueño (Nocturno Del Brooklyn Bridge) – de Federico García Lorca

No duerme nadie por el cielo. Nadie, nadie.
No duerme nadie.
Las criaturas de la luna huelen y rondan sus cabañas.
Vendrán las iguanas vivas a morder a los hombres que no sueñan
y el que huye con el corazón roto encontrará por las esquinas
al increíble cocodrilo quieto bajo la tierna protesta de los astros.
No duerme nadie por el mundo. Nadie, nadie.
No duerme nadie.
Hay un muerto en el cementerio más lejano
que se queja tres años
porque tiene un paisaje seco en la rodilla;
y el niño que enterraron esta mañana lloraba tanto
que hubo necesidad de llamar a los perros para que callase.
No es sueño la vida. ¡Alerta! ¡Alerta! ¡Alerta!
Nos caemos por las escaleras para comer la tierra húmeda
o subimos al filo de la nieve con el coro de las dalias muertas.
Pero no hay olvido, ni sueño:
carne viva. Los besos atan las bocas
en una maraña de venas recientes
y al que le duele su dolor le dolerá sin descanso
y al que teme la muerte la llevará sobre sus hombros.

Un día
los caballos vivirán en las tabernas
y las hormigas furiosas
atacarán los cielos amarillos que se refugian en los ojos de las vacas.
Otro día
veremos la resurrección de las mariposas disecadas
y aún andando por un paisaje de esponjas grises y barcos mudos
veremos brillar nuestro anillo y manar rosas de nuestra lengua.
¡Alerta! ¡Alerta! ¡Alerta!
A los que guardan todavía huellas de zarpa y aguacero,
a aquel muchacho que llora porque no sabe la invención del puente
o a aquel muerto que ya no tiene más que la cabeza y un zapato,
hay que llevarlos al muro donde iguanas y sierpes esperan,
donde espera la dentadura del oso,
donde espera la mano momificada del niño
y la piel del camello se eriza con un violento escalofrío azul.
No duerme nadie por el cielo. Nadie, nadie.
No duerme nadie.
Pero si alguien cierra los ojos,
¡azotadlo, hijos míos, azotadlo!
Haya un panorama de ojos abiertos
y amargas llagas encendidas.
No duerme nadie por el mundo. Nadie, nadie.
Ya lo he dicho.
No duerme nadie.
Pero si alguien tiene por la noche exceso de musgo en las sienes,
abrid los escotillones para que vea bajo la luna
las copas falsas, el veneno y la calavera de los teatros.