Meet Mitsie!

Okay, so, Mitsie is no longer our “new” cat. We’ve actually had her for three years this month, yet it’s taken me this long to finally get around to writing about her… I think this is a good thing, because I’ve learnt a lot about Mitsie (and life) in those three years. Here are some of the things I’ve learnt:

 

1) Be careful what you wish for

After our old cat, Moggy, died it took us a while to grieve and get to a place where we, as a family, were ready for a new pet. Pretty much all of us had an unspoken desire for a cat who was as friendly, affectionate and loving as our big old softy Moggy was. Though as a writer, I secretly hoped that this new cat wouldn’t do too much of the things that all writers’ cats do – frequently interrupt typing by wanting to be petted, trying to sit on your lap or laptop and hence deleting one’s precious, epic manuscript. I got my wish. Mitsie doesn’t sit on laps or generally want to interfere with my writing. She is so not bothered by my literary endeavours. Humph.

 

Am I bovvered?

 

2) Manage your expectations

As I said previously, we all wanted a super-friendly cat. Mitsie is not that cat. We got her from a cat foster home, and the woman looking after her intimated that she came from a rather uncaring home. Our hearts went out to her and I think we all had visions of our bountiful love “undoing” all the previous neglect, and her frisking about with catty gratitude for her new, wonderful owners. These expectations were a bit too high. Mitsie is very loved and cared for now, and she does show her attachment to us in all manner of sweet (though rather shy) ways, but she is simply not an overtly get-in-your-face or body space kind of cat. That’s something that both children, in particular, have had to realize and accept.

 

Mitsie’s catty birthday cake. (Link to how to make it here.)

 

Mitsie getting her cake AND eating it.

 

3) You can’t teach an old dog new tricks

Or, indeed, a young cat new tricks. We tried and tried to teach her how to use the cat flaps (and went through a lot of ham in the process) but Miss Mitsie would not deign to use the aforementioned cat flaps. So, we prop them open for her instead. (It’s a solution…)

 

Keeping her eyes on the prize.

 

4) There’s always a ‘third way’

Well, nearly always. Mitsie loves eating cat biscuits, but they make her thirsty. Does she drink from the water bowl next to her food? Of course not! Instead, she prefers to drink from the water mugs beside our bed. Ew… We started covering our mugs with coasters, or hiding them away from her, but somehow, she always got her face into them. So, voila! we found a (sort of) elegant solution by going with her urge and getting her her very own bedside table water mug.

 

This is getting meta…

 

5) Cat can be introverts too

Even before social distancing was a thing, Mitsie was practising this. She likes being near us, but never too near us. She is happiest being approximately one arm’s length away, i.e. just out of stroking distance. And don’t even think of trying to break this imposed distancing – even the tiniest tickle on her forehead could end up with you being bitten.

 

This is just purrfect.

 

6) Body language speaks volumes

After being out all night chasing mice, Mitsie is ready for breakfast. In fact, she’s so ready for breakfast that she’ll purr and rub round your legs (which I think she views as cat food dispensers). After first breakfast, being partially sated, this food-based friendliness gets dialled down and then she’ll hang around the kitchen, giving your feet a swipe if ever you pass the fridge without getting the cat food out. It doesn’t take a genius to work out what she wants. Second breakfast over and done with she will saunter off, completely ignoring you, and make her way to my daughter’s upper bunk bed (which, in Mitsie’s mind, is her bed). After a good wash she settles down to sleep, and if you even call her name or go near her, her tail will start thumping. (Her way of saying ‘talk to the paw’!) Get even closer and she may treat you to one of her out-of-the-blue scratch attacks.

She may not be able to speak with words, but Mitsie sure does know how to communicate her wishes.

 

In fact, all the beds are her beds.

 

7) Beware generalisations

Generalisations – about people, life, or cats – can be useful. But they don’t always apply to every circumstance or individual. When my son found a website about tuxedo cats and read that they are highly intelligent and super friendly, he shook his head sagely and said that they hadn’t met Mitsie. But we can all agree that she is the best dressed cat in the neighbourhood.

 

Dance for us, Mitsie, dance for us! (Bonus points for getting the obscure Spaced reference…)

 

8) Mitsie as Muse

Mitsie is one of the family, and as such, she has inspired countless illustrations, songs, jokes, stories and plays. I’m not sure she particularly relishes this role – particularly if it means being fussed over – but sometimes I catch a little smile on her face and think she knows, and approves.

 

Illustration by Teika Marija Smits

 

9) Meet others where they are

Throughout life, we all encounter any number of individuals at different times in their life. If they’re in a good place – a secure, happy place – it can be easier to relate to them and to connect with them. If they’re struggling, with internal or external issues, we may struggle to bond with them; we may not have the tools, or the energy or time, or the inclination to forge a relationship with them.

 

Hiding.

 

We first met Mitsie at a time in her life when she’d been given up by her old owners and was sad and bewildered. We gave her a home and a lot of love, and she has flourished and grown confident, and in her own sweet (and rather cross) way she is well on the path to individuation. (As Jung would have it.) It’s important to meet her where she is now – which is a much more happy and friendly place – but to not rush her into a future of our making; imagining her to be all super affectionate and the kind of cat who actively seeks out your lap. That may never happen. And it would be to futile to ask this of a cat who simply doesn’t have the life background (or personality) to do this. Which leads me nicely on to…

 

10) Love being its own reward

Because of the fact that Mitsie isn’t a highly affectionate cat, her rare (but becoming more frequent) instances of love and affection are incredibly precious to us. Indeed, sometimes I feel that life is at its most perfect when, taking a break from it all, I squirrel myself away with my laptop to write, to be joined by Mitsie. The fact that she has sought me out makes me feel very special, and when she settles down beside me, purring – yes, actually purring! – I feel as though I am the most blessed person on Earth.

 

I don’t think she liked being caught in the act of being so close to me!

 

Lastly…

I once asked my young son if he wished that instead of Mitsie we had a cat who liked being stroked and picked up, but with great wisdom he said no. He added that other people, finding out how shy and cross she could be, may not have wanted to keep her. And then she’d again be alone in the world. After all, he concluded, we gave her a loving home, and that is one of the best gifts you can give.

 

My home.

When will things return to normal? (Some reflections from a person prone to OCD.)

Obviously, I never wanted my first blog post of the year to be about a pandemic. But here we are, in the middle of the coronavirus outbreak, and here we could be for quite some time. I keep returning to the question, When will things return to normal?

Since the start of winter last year, with its fierce weather – the terrible storms, the flooding – as well as university strikes which made my husband’s life, and hence our family life somewhat up-and-down, I looked to spring, hoping that a smoother time would be ahead. But smoother hasn’t turned up.

As the news came in, day by day, moment by moment, I found myself stopping in the middle of a task, anxious, panicky feelings gripping my throat. What was the point of my publishing work? What was the point of me hoovering this carpet? What was the point of me writing? What was the point of me cooking dinner? Worries about getting ill, loved ones and friends being ill, whole nations getting ill, the globe becoming one giant lockdown with not a loaf of bread or toilet roll to be had, not to mention the economic knock-on effects, threatened to engulf me. Perhaps it would be better to take myself off up to bed and quietly implode.

Ah, hello OCD, my old friend. You’ve come to talk with me again.

Now, me and OCD go way back. Like, to my mid-twenties. To be quite frank, it’s a shitty companion. Thankfully, since I became a mother it has taken a backseat in my life (I put that down to the birthing and breastfeeding hormones – which lower stress – as well as the weight of responsibility motherhood brings. For me, putting someone else’s needs before my own helped free up my brain to focus on the reality before me, not the unrealities in my head). But in times of stress, or (weirdly) even in times when everything seems to be good, it flutters around the edges of my mind, tempting me with its sickly sweet poison. In these moments I feel as though I am only ever one thought away from the abyss. And that is truly frightening.

Yet in the past year and a bit, I’ve seen it from another perspective. I’ve been a mum to a child who has inherited my tendency to fear change and crave control over the anxiety change brings by adopting habits, tics, routines. And if those compulsions are broken all of us as a family have to endure an emotional storm.

Of course I blame myself – stupid, stupid genes! – but apportioning blame doesn’t move me forward. (A parallel with coronavirus here: my kids have been asking over and over again, Where did it start? Who started it? How did this happen? We may have answers, but how does that help us to deal with the here and now?)

So, putting aside my son’s yoke of inheritance, over and over again I’ve found myself in the situation of having to figure out ways to help him out of the mental black hole. And it’s been hard, ever so hard. Particularly so when I’ve felt myself slipping into that black hole too. But, in a way, we’ve helped each other. When he’s having a bad time of it I am there for him. Offering empathy, words of encouragement, some ideas for how he can “unstick” himself. Boundaries. And when anxiety threatens to overwhelm me, and I feel myself grasping for the lifeboat of mental routines, I think of my son; of the things I say to him when he’s in the thick of OCD. And with each OCD battle he fights through – and wins – he inspires me. If he can do it. I can do it too.

I remind myself that control is an illusion. That beyond our own actions we have no control over our lives, or what may happen “out there” in the world. And that the lifeboat of routines is a mirage. For change is ever-present, and we must bend and flex our thoughts quickly to each new situation we find ourselves in. Rigidity in thought – of the short-term comforting routines or tics or mental compulsions – does not serve any person well in the long-term. We need to let go of the “bully in our brain” (as my son calls it) – the bully that is both to be kept at a distance and accepted as simply a facet of our expansive imagination – and release ourselves from its grip. Though it is easier said than done. (Practise helps.)

Part of my anxiety around coronavirus, and its implications on everyone’s lives, stems from how quickly things are changing. Again and again, I am instructing my mind to bend and flex and adapt, and to sometimes stay very still, powerfully still – the way a gymnast must sometimes tense all their muscles to hold a pose – so that I can once again move forward, thoughts-wise, with positive purpose.

 

Image by skeeze from Pixabay

 

Like many other people, I’m trying to keep my anxiety levels to a minimum by doing less of certain things (e.g. social media scrolling “to see what the latest is”) and doing more of the things I love: talking and playing with my family, my publishing work, writing, reading, creating art. Even hoovering can be a pleasant occupation when I am in a positive frame of mind! And acting in positive, helpful ways, as well as interacting with those in my community and showing them my appreciation, always makes me feel better.

Who knows what tomorrow will bring. Of course I cannot eliminate worry from my life. But I will do my best to bring it down to sensible levels, and I will do my very best to bend and flex, adapt, tense… let go.

 

Photo by Persnickety Prints on Unsplash

 

FantasyCon, kindness, and some writing revelations

Sometimes I wonder what the SFF book world must look like to those outside it. To those not enamoured with dragons, fairies, spaceships or extraterrestrials, it probably looks rather strange. Geeky? Most likely. And given the number of altercations in recent years with regards to voting for awards, award renamings and the like, I can’t help but think that it must look as though it is a highly polarized community; a giant amoeba constantly stretching itself thin, its two extended arms always at battle with each other. Maybe the only time it comes together en masse, to regroup, is when a well-known literary author publicly denigrates the genre.

 

11 2019 Chlamydomonas - art by Teika Marija Smits

A genus of algae – not an amoeba, obvs – but still, a unicellular organism.

 

This picture, at any particular moment, could actually be spot on. Yet, also, it’s just a snapshot. It can’t convey the huge depth of this bookish world; the opinions and feelings of all the writers, publishers, editors, readers and fans that make up the community, particularly when some of them prefer not to be hugely vocal through social media.

For me, the last FantasyCon I attended was striking in its cordiality and cohesion. (Though, to be fair, all the FantasyCons I’ve been to so far have been like this.) True, I only know a smattering of people and I spend a lot of my time in the dealers’ room behind my stall, but I see a lot of kindness. Dealers – potential competitors, remember! – helping each other lug boxes of books in and out of the room; buying coffees for each other; keeping an eye on each other’s stalls when you need to rush off to a panel, or the loo; inviting each other for dinner; sharing spreadsheet woes as well as bookish successes. So, particular mentions go to Francesca and Rob of Luna Press Publishing, Noel Chidwick of Shoreline of Infinity, and the Elsewhen Press and PS Publishing team for their bigheartedness.

 

10 2019 Teika behind table at FantasyCon 2019

 

Then there are those that you get chatting to about a book or short story that you both happen to love and that’s it – you realize you’ve met a kindred spirit. When I happened to mention to Neil Snowdon of the Electric Dreamhouse that I was a fan of Angela Slatter’s stories and Rosie Garland’s magical historical fiction, we got chatting… and chatting. I had a feeling that this enthusiastic conversation could go on for a long time, and over many cons! (I have already thought of more books and films I want to talk to Neil about…)

Then there were the kind writers, readers and friends who helped me launch The Forgotten and the Fantastical 5, and who, later, listened to me read some of my own short pieces (I was sure no one would come, so to see some friendly faces was marvellous!). Thank you also to my fellow reader, Justin Lee Anderson, who read brilliantly and was super encouraging.

There was also music and dance. When I caught the strains of an Eurythmics song coming from the disco I had an urge to leap up and dance. My outer “sensible adult” told me to sit quietly and refrain from any strange jiggling around, but then that kid I used to be – the one who would spin and stomp on the dance floor because of the sheer joy of the music – encouraged me on. Well, that, and Georgina Bruce (a superb writer of the gorgeously creepy) who was already there and enticing me onto the dance floor with come-hither hand gestures. Thank you to Georgina for giving me a chance to let go and enjoy the music! The dance floor is a democratic place. A great leveller.

Lastly, there were the two writers who dropped nuggets of gold at my feet when I was chatting with them. I told Robert Shearman of my desire to write a choose-your-own-adventure type story. Given the fact that he had done just that – and in a rather spectacularly epic and original fashion, taking a decade to complete the project – he didn’t laugh me off the premises. He simply said, ‘Go for it!’ And his encouragement made me smile and I felt that maybe, just maybe, I would go for it. Later, by the bar, I got chatting to editor-extraordinaire Dan Coxon (who is much taller than I expected him to be – because when you get to know people via social media first in my mind they are all my height i.e. short). Anyway… he mentioned a writer-friend who wrote slowly – adding 300 or so words a day to the novel – while also editing. Now, this is my style of writing. I edit as I go. I’m slow. I’m the exact opposite of the writer who gets that first draft down as quickly as possible and then edits later. I’m a tortoise. And that’s okay. It is good to know there are others like me.

There’s nothing original in the idea that kindness is radical; that listening to others who have different opinions on various issues (yes, even political issues) is of value; that we can reflect and learn from everyone’s experiences… but I do think it’s a message worth repeating, particularly when it’s so easy to log into social media and get deafened by the sheer volume of outrage and unkindness. When, on the last day of FantasyCon, my fellow folklore and fairy tale panellist, Ali Nouraei, spoke of the ‘oneness of humanity’ and of the universality and inherent wisdom of the stories humankind has shared – and keeps on sharing – I felt it a fitting conclusion.

So… thank you to the kind people at FantasyCon who made my weekend so full of warmth. You are radical.

*

 

p.s. on reflection (and several re-reads) I thought that if you swapped ‘SFF bookworld’ for ‘UK politics’ or ‘global politics’ there wouldn’t be much of a difference. An alien visiting Earth and seeing us busy cranking the heat up on the planet while arguing over, say, Black Friday deals, would think us decidedly odd.

What I did at 40

Recently on social media, people were spreading a little positivity by sharing some of the things they’ve done in their 40s of which they’re proud. I didn’t take part at the time although I wanted to because a) I’m too slow on the uptake and b) the contrarian in me doesn’t like to rush along doing whatever everyone else is doing at that particular moment. But on reflection I thought it a lovely – and inspiring – thing to do (my writer-publisher friend Tracey Scott-Townsend has published a fascinating series of ‘What I did at 50’ posts on her blog and she’s had a brilliant response to that).

Anyway, as I was contemplating the necessity of updating my writing publications page on this blog I realized that there were several things I’d done since I turned 40 of which I was proud. And what struck me about them was that about two decades ago I wouldn’t have imagined myself doing or achieving any of those things.

Although I’d always envisaged marriage and children being a part of my life I never really had a clear vision of what I’d be doing in my 40s (back then 40 seemed like a lifetime away and well, just a bit decrepit, yeah?!). I thought that going down the science path would be the best thing to do because of my keen interest in the subject, and I have (in general) always thought science to be a powerful tool that could be wielded for good, in terms of society and the environment. Also, jobs in science seemed plentiful.

But, at 28 I discovered that the career part of the science career wasn’t really for me. However, I made a new discovery – that I had an aptitude for teaching (others as well as myself) and I had a desire to write (I’d always been writing poetry on and off, but I began my first novel at age 28). So I taught science instead. Then marriage and children followed soon after, and a much greater appreciation for what it takes to be a mum, raise children and run a household. I stopped teaching before my eldest daughter was born. But throughout those tumultuous early months – and years – I kept writing in snatched moments. The end result of that newfound appreciation of breastfeeding, mothering, and writing was my small press Mother’s Milk Books. So that, I suppose, has to be the first of the things I’d never expected myself to do.

 

Running an indie press

This September Mother’s Milk Books will be eight years old. I still feel as much enthusiasm about producing new books and publishing authors now as I did at the start of the journey (though I must admit the admin side of things seems to have exponentially increased – and admin really isn’t my favourite!). The extra bonus of running the press is that I’ve learnt so much about writing and the publishing industry – and how to get a foot in the door – that I now teach others on this subject (through workshops etc.). I’ve mentored and supported a number of up-and-coming writers and poets and I love seeing them grow and improve in their writing.

Teika at Waterstones

At a recent ‘How to Get Published’ workshop I ran for Writing East MIdlands.

 

Blogging with my husband about all things publishing/writing

I always thought that working with my husband would be fantastic, but it hasn’t been until recently that we’ve put two of our interests together – my interest in making the workings of the publishing world more transparent and his interest in the neuroscience and psychology of motivation, procrastination and productivity – and created a website called The Book Stewards. So if you’re a writer who’d appreciate some insider information – into the publishing world, and the workings of their brain, do check it out!

 

Getting up early to write

Goodness me, I never thought I’d be the kind of person who’d harp on about the wonders of getting up early and writing, but this year I finally got round to sticking to a new work schedule which involved getting up at around 6.30 a.m. and writing for about 45 minutes before getting breakfast ready for everyone. I CANNOT say that I jump out of bed eagerly, going Wahoo! but, still, I do drag myself out of bed and, bleary-eyed, get some words down on the page. The toughest thing about it is probably having to drag myself away from the laptop to make breakfast when I’m in writing ‘flow’. The two nicest things about this is: 1) how comfortably silent the house is and 2) the cat joining me and curling up beside me.

 

Weightlifting

When my husband first got into weightlifting a few years ago I wasn’t impressed by the sheer volume a set of weights and dumbbells takes up, but then I learnt about the whole HIIT (high intensity and interval training) from Joe Wicks, of which weights is a part, and it appealed to me because 1) as a way to lose weight and tone up, scientifically speaking it makes sense and 2) I’ve always had the build of a somewhat – ahem – cushioned, Amazon warrior so why not play to that? Also, being able to lift something that looks ridiculously heavy is weirdly pleasing.

 

Jogging

There was a period in my mid-twenties when jogging was one of my weekly exercises, but, sadly, a dodgy knee brought that to an end (most likely due to my hypermobility). I genuinely thought I’d never run again. At the start of this year a neighbour-friend of mine was doing the Couch-to-5K programme and asked if I wanted to take part. My first reaction was that of horror. I couldn’t run! My dodgy knee! My wobbly belly! My complete lack of running finesse! Anyway, to cut a long story short, six months on I’m still running for 30 minutes twice a week and it’s simply become a thing I do. I still worry about the dodgy knee (from time to time it gives me warning twinges), and every time I set off I think that what I’m about to do is utter madness, but somehow I get through the madness and the twinges and get to the end of the 30 minute jog, very proud of myself.

Teika after jogging

Marbled leggings and a 25-year-old Cure t-shirt is THE thing to be wearing while jogging.

 

 

Having a story in the Best of British Science Fiction 2018

Although I have a background in science I’m relatively new to writing science fiction (about three or four years). To tell the truth, I feel as though I’m somewhat an imposter in this field because I didn’t spend my childhood reading all the scifi classics and Golden Era novels (though I did watch a lot of science fiction on the screen – Doctor Who, Star Trek, Star Wars, Bladerunner and Inner Space immediately spring to mind etc.).

 

 

But I guess all that TV/movie watching paid off because I’ve now had several short stories published by scifi magazines and even managed to have one of those stories picked up for the Best of British Science Fiction 2018, (now available for pre-order), which delights me no end. In the meantime I’m catching up with my scifi reading and loving it! Of course I’m continuing to get a frequent number of rejections, but my son’s words of encouragement mean everything to me and keep me going during the nth rejection of the month.

 

‘The Future of Science Fiction’ – a story by my son in which I have the starring role!

 

Making art

Technically, I began my attempt to make art a few years before hitting 40, but I feel much more like I’m hitting my stride when it comes to art now. (Although I’m not entirely sure that what I am creating could actually be classified as art – Grayson Perry’s book about what art is or isn’t, Playing to the Gallery, definitely made me reconsider my own work.) BUT I am having immense fun drawing, painting, doodling, papercutting, art glass making and inking, and it’s my go-to activity if I need to slow down and get my head straight. And really, art or not art, it’s the joy of the process that matters.

 

 

Actually, that can be applied to all the above. They’re not about the destination, but the journey.

Narratives of birth and death and all that there is in between: 5 poetry collection reviews

Work and writing projects have kept me from adding much to my blog recently, but I love this little space of mine and so will continue to “slow blog” in my own unique and eclectic manner. Of late, poetry has been on my mind for various reasons, and in a desire to give back to Poetry World I am reviewing the following collections. I can highly recommend them all.

 

Land and Sea and Turning by Kate Garrett is a pleasingly substantial pamphlet given its slimness; the paper of the pamphlet is relatively thick and I like the black endpapers – a most striking and fitting touch given the cover art. The poems balance light and dark, leaving and arriving, so skilfully that, often, I do not know how the trick is done. In general, the themes are dark and disquieting, but Garrett has such a light, skilful touch that even the most macabre of topics – for example, an obscure medieval tradition of mutilating corpses in case of possible reanimation – becomes an entrancing, rewarding read. Then, in between, there will be a poem about a more general subject such as mothering which, to my mind, opens the whole collection and provides it with an uplifting airiness. ‘Witchling’ (about her daughter, Saoirse) is a sweet gem of a poem, though it is still infused with Garrett’s trademark fairy tale sharpness, and ‘From one room to another’ is a gorgeous, romantic poem, its rhythm drawing you on through the couplets.

‘For Josephine’ is one of my favourites in the pamphlet and a beautifully understated poem to a woman

 

“…whose lips prayed their last as she

ran for the train, ran for the tracks

and flew, just once, to land at the feet

of strangers in a station, to land in a grave

 

belonging to “The Girl in Blue”….”

 

 

Kate is fast becoming one of my favourite poets and I very much look forward to reading more from her.

*

Angela Topping’s latest book, The Five Petals of Elderflower, is a compelling collection by a poet truly at the height of her powers. Topping’s poems make for easy reading, in that the language is straightforward and unfussy which, actually, makes them all the more remarkable. To convey so much power in such a direct yet subtle way is extraordinary and marks out Topping as a poet through and through. I also love the way she can’t be boxed-in into any particular ‘type’ of poet. When reading her poems on nature – ‘Seed Time’ is a favourite – I can’t help thinking: this is her forte. And then she will blow me away with a poem about an apparently small moment – a mother and daughter posing together for a photo – with its insights into the mother-daughter bond:

 

“…For this studio photograph

they are stitched together, a book bound dos á dos.

It has always been this way with mothers and daughters.”

 

From ‘They Pose Together’

 

This is a gorgeous-looking book, put together with real love, and I really hope that Topping’s next collection, small or large, comes out soon.

*

On the other hand, in Loneliness is the Machine that Drives the World, Grant Tarbard, another poet through and through, uses language in a more tricksy, mysterious way. The sometimes uncanny images he conjures are striking in their juxtaposition.

 

“Gathering a rich patchwork of echoes

in the desolate breakfast of wild hair,

dyed white under the cracked sun – he ventures to

speak with the sand for forty days and forty nights.”

 

From ‘Sage of the Wastes’

 

Through his poetry the reader is able to perceive the world through a rather uncanny lens, simultaneously otherworldly though, often, rotten within:

 

“all lilies, all buds,

stink of life’s rotten sweetness,

the scent of a wreath”

 

From ‘I’ll Be No-One Again’

 

His is the kind of writing I would most like to emulate, yet it is frustratingly difficult to achieve. So, instead, l’ll leave the likes of Tarbard up to it and make do with my own style, while admiring his so much. I also want to add that the quality of the pamphlet is very high. The pamphlet is a real object of beauty in its own right and I am very glad to have discovered the press, Platypus Press, because of it.

*

Out of all the poets I can “hear” Cathy Bryant’s voice the most. When I read her poems it is as though she’s in the room with me, sitting beside me, having a poetical conversation. Her poetry is warm and witty, yet sharp and precise when it needs to be, the themes she writes about, as well as the voices she uses, eclectic. Her latest collection, Erratics – with its striking and fitting cover art – is rather like a hug from a good friend, her poem ‘Warmer Places’ a fine example of the poet’s warmth:

 

“then her eye catches mine at the right angle

and we laugh ourselves into a new season

and a warmer place.”

 

Though, as I said earlier, she can sting when she wants to:

 

“Yes, England welcomed the uncommercial,

artistic and odd, said Sylvia.

And didn’t we make her stay special.”

 

From ‘Sylvia Plath Talks About England’

 

A sucker for good storytelling (and Cathy really is a natural when it comes to storytelling) I will look forward to reading more of Cathy’s poetry.

*

Lastly, Moon Milk, by Rachel Bower is a pamphlet on the themes of new motherhood and family life – topics close to my heart. Having read a lot of poetry on these themes through my publishing work I feel quite well-versed in the various approaches writer-mothers take when tackling these subjects and see a fair bit of familiar imagery. What I particularly liked about Rachel’s pamplet is how different it is, and yet it still manages to be fresh and full of warmth, something that I feel is very difficult to achieve well in this context. ‘Slow Ship’, ‘Oyster’ and ‘Amber’ are beautifully crafted and some of my favourites – resonating as they do with my own experiences.

 

“I hope to remember the woman I was

before he was born, the sculptor of rain

 

but when his small cry balloons

I become the milk that surges in,

his face a pearl in my arms.”

 

From ‘Oyster’

 

The pamphlet is a gorgeous book in its own right – the paper pleasingly thick, the interior design elegant and the cover striking. Well done to Valley Press for publishing a book that I would’ve eagerly taken on. I will keep my eye on what Rachel does next…

On Bread and Love

 

“Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.”

― Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven

 

When I first read the above I didn’t give much thought to it. Maybe because, at first glance, it appears to be a blandly general insight: for love to last, you have to put effort in. Not exactly ground-breaking. Then again, maybe I didn’t give much thought to it because I’m not one of those people who properly make bread from scratch, the aroma of a freshly baked loaf just waiting to be slathered in butter or honey or jam, permeating their house, signalling to the visitor that this person really is the bees knees, for they can make bread. You see, I cheat. In general, I buy supermarket bread, or use my trusty secondhand bread maker when I want something fresh and hot. So maybe I immediately considered myself out of the loop. Metaphorically speaking, I was the someone who cuts corners in the effort required to make a relationship work. And no one really wants to be the corner cutter. Humph.

 

 

Over time, I mulled over the insight and considered how much I do make from scratch every single day. How so many people make stuff from scratch every single day. Particularly those with lots of little mouths and growing bodies to feed. Breakfasts, lunches, dinners. (Gawd I make a lot of those! Sometimes it feels as though I’m only ever five minutes away from serving up more food.) Snacks. Desserts. Birthday cakes. But not only is there the food, there are the stories and poems, the little artworks that are seemingly magicked out of thin air, courtesy of that curious thing called imagination.

So okay, I’m not a proper bread maker (oh how I yearn for that particular talent!) but I – like so many others – do know about making stuff from scratch and about being in a long-term relationship. Last year my husband and I reached a milestone: we’d been together (21 years) for the same length of time we hadn’t been together. So from this year onwards we will have spent more of our lives together than apart. Which, if you think about it, is a little bit strange, but also a whole lot of wonderful.

Ursula Le Guin’s words about love (whether or not you want to use bread or something else as the metaphor) are absolutely true. But this insight isn’t often discussed. Probably because it’s not as exciting as the first phase of a relationship. If you’re a limerent like me then the beginning of a romance is all fireworks and shooting stars, a pounding heart and a deep, deep yearning. However, that first stage of limerence passes. It simply has to. And then, what are you left with? You’re left with the reality of two people trying to make a go of staying together, of keeping their love fresh throughout the years. And like anything that’s worth doing, it can sometimes be hard to do.

There are times when you just coast along, almost living parallel lives (this is particularly likely to occur in midlife/when children come along and pull you in different directions) and you think (to return to the bread making metaphor) that hey, you know, that’s okay, because everyone needs to cut corners in a while, and so what if you haven’t made any fresh bread recently? It’ll happen soon. When this task/event/work thing/kid’s thing/family thing is done and sorted, we’ll have more time to connect and be together. But you see, if you keep putting off the reconnecting, it makes it all that harder to reconnect. Also, while you’re busy living parallel lives there’s the possibility that you might get pulled closer to someone else. Or some other life goal that doesn’t involve your partner or family. Then the reconnecting that you always meant to do simply doesn’t happen at all.

So Le Guin’s insight is both banal and wise. After being together for 21 years my husband and I could coast along, but we both know that in the long-term that’s not a wise plan. We have to make time for each other, and for those many small – yet, ultimately, big – gestures of love: a cup of tea in the morning. A favourite packed lunch. A chat over coffee. A hug. A simple show of our belief in each other, ‘You can totally do this!’ Or an expression of genuine interest, ‘How are you? How was your day?’ accompanied by real, proper listening. Sometimes, it’s about saying ‘I’m sorry’ when you know you’ve messed up.

For us, this Valentine’s Day, there won’t be fireworks or shooting stars (or handmade bread!) but there may well be a dinner that someone else cooks for us, and best of all, there’ll be love and laughter and a renewing of our resolution to keep making our love fresh, every day.

Reflecting on 2018 and a Giveaway!

Reflection is always valuable, but the end of the year provides the perfect excuse to pause and reflect on one’s achievements and mess-ups with a view to planning for the year ahead. My husband calls it ‘scheming and dreaming’ and it’s one of my favourite things to do.

First, though, a look back on 2018. It’s been a good year for me writing-wise. Although the first half of the year didn’t yield many publishing credits the pieces that were accepted I was incredibly proud of, and it felt great to be part of the publications: Bonnie’s Crew – a fundraising poetry anthology edited by the amazing Kate Garrett – and Café Stories: The Dinesh Allirajah Prize for Short Fiction 2018. Dinesh sounds to have been an incredible man and I’m ever so grateful to Comma Press for introducing me to his writing.

In the last half of the year I also achieved some ‘firsts’: having a poem being published in Prole (which I’ve tried to get into a fair few times) as well as receiving my first pro payment for a speculative fiction story (‘The Green Man’ in Reckoning). Two other firsts were writing some science fiction poetry and seeing it published in Multiverse, as well as having my short story ‘ATU334 the Wise’ be featured in a podcast created by Shoreline of Infinity. There’s something very special about hearing a great narrator read your story (and knowing that other people are actually listening to it!). An article about small press publishing in Mslexia was another wonderful first. Publication in Atrium, I Am Not A Silent Poet and Zoomorphic (with a strange short fiction piece about jellyfish which I thought no one would ever publish) were also highlights.

 

Created during Inktober 2018

 

Having my essay ‘The Darkness Within, The Darkness Without’ win the short non-fiction category in the 2018 Nottingham Writers’ Studio Awards was pretty special too, and it made me brave enough to think that just maybe I could write more non-fiction about fairy tales. So off I went to offer an essay on one of my favourite fairy tales – ‘Bluebeard’ – to Luna Press Publishing for their Evolution of Evil in Fantasy and Science Fiction collection. I have to admit that I found the 3000+ word essay a real challenge as I haven’t written in an academic style for a LONG time. And in the course of writing the essay I wrote a ‘Bluebeard’-inspired short story (about 3000 words long) which I had super fun writing. The story took me a couple of hours over the course of a couple of days to write. The essay took me an hour or two every day for almost 6 weeks. A reminder to myself: fiction is easier to write than academic prose!

Amidst all this short story writing and academic writing (as well as all the work I do for my press) was the creation of a novella and the start of a non-fiction book. Now, the novella is finished but my editor-extraordinaire husband says it needs rewriting (he’s right, it does) and that perhaps I could explore some of the themes in more detail (I can, and I want to). But it does rather mean that the novella would then turn into a novel, which is something that I can’t commit to right now. The non-fiction book is interesting too…. Because at the last moment I decided to enter it into a prize thingy. Then it turned out to have been shortlisted (with some agent interest in it). I found out about it one Friday evening in the middle of cooking burgers for our dinner. I almost burnt the burgers whilst busy doing an impression of Galadriel from Lord of the Rings when offered the one ring by Frodo.

 

 

Me: (Addressing the astonished cat.) “You offer me your interest freely. I do not deny that my heart has greatly desired this. (Arms slowly being raised while my hair floats about my face majestically.) In place of a dark lord/career author you would have a queen of prose! Not dark but beautiful and terrible as the dawn, treacherous as the sea. Stronger than the foundations of the Earth. All shall love my books and despair!”

The cat fled, terrified, and thankfully I passed the test, calmed down a bit and rescued the burgers from setting on fire. Phew! The upshot of all this craziness is that the agent is still interested in the book but she needs to see a lot more of it. So, in 2019 I really need to get my non-fiction hat back on and to get typing! (Though the first thing I’ll have to do in January is my tax return. Damn it…!)

Lastly, taking part in #100DaysofWriting was a big help – I don’t think I would’ve written quite as much if it wasn’t for the incentive to write something every day, hence ensuring that each writing project trundled that bit further along to completion.

What are your plans for 2019? I’d love to hear about them. And if you leave a comment below I’ll enter you in my (somewhat belated) 6 year blogging anniversary giveaway in which I’m giving away these 3 goodies. 🙂

 

Goodies galore!

 

The giveaway will run until midnight GMT on Sunday 27th January 2019 and I’ll announce the winners shortly afterwards. (This offer is open to anyone living in any country, but if someone outside the UK does win, a contribution toward postage would be appreciated.)

Whatever your plans for the year ahead I wish you a very happy, healthy and creative 2019!