Let’s keep our windows on the world

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It is 2006 when I enter a small branch library on Victoria Road, Swindon. On first sight it is stuffed with books and there’s a public computer – hooray! One of the two library assistants notices me and we get chatting. Thus begins my integration into the Old Town – people to meet, books to choose and discuss, reliable information readily to hand and all the advice I need from our librarians. Within days I am greeted by name. And so the uneasiness of settling into a new location is dispelled.

In those halcyon days small branch libraries up and down the country served millions of people, answering millions of queries and providing a focal point for each community.  Free of charge, it has been a special, accessible and safe space to be enjoyed not only by newcomers, but everyone else. What’s not to like?

Swindon opened its first public library in August 1943, in the middle of World War II.  The public library was at that time and until recently recognised by politicians and public servants as an institution essential to the public good. Townsfolk enjoyed a central library and 14 further public libraries, plus a mobile service. It is, however, the sad reality today that, in spite of the town’s expansion and so many new people moving in, the mobile service is defunct and all but four of its public libraries have been divested out of the statutory service, their future sustainability uncertain.

As long ago as 2007 we learned that our own much-appreciated facility was threatened with closure. Margaret, over eighty years of age, said she’d chain herself to the railings in that event, while other users of all ages and backgrounds were similarly distraught.  Roisin had brought her children, then her grandchildren to this little library. Peter had made friends, he says, and it gives him something to look forward to, keeping his brain active. The friendliness and buzz of our branch library, so professionally run had invigorated young and old alike, linking us to the community around us.

Such a threat to it, then, must surely be challenged. Who would petition the council?  How could the library’s closure or the loss of its staff be tolerated?

To gather signatures on any physical petition is a salutary experience, uniting disparate people around a local issue perhaps more than any e-petition can. As we cheerfully roamed the local streets, we became aware that few people knew the library was threatened. It had had such a low profile that a few did not even know it existed. Our presence on street corners in the bitter cold, we hoped, would put an end to that. Note the young mother who signed with alacrity. I recall her particularly because she needed to take her autistic son to a smaller space than the central library. He’d not be able to cope with that, she said. The elderly were worried, too, being less mobile. They were accustomed to visiting the library often (on foot) to load themselves up with enough books or audio-books to read at home.

Appeals to Culture ministers and Secretaries of State, most recently in 2015, met with assurances that our concerns were legitimate and would be investigated. They have actually done absolutely nothing!

On the upside, the support of The Library Campaign, a national charity, has been crucial to our morale and small successes, as we fought long and hard to retain what we felt was ours by right. As a result our branch library and its paid staff were saved for ten years or so. Result!

The threat, however, expanded in 2016 to become borough wide, so there was a massive reorganisation of folk across the Town. Users and campaigners united as Save Swindon’s Libraries. As a result, four excellent libraries continue to serve the town within the statutory service, but the remainder, though open, do not enjoy their former status.  Although it could have been far worse, the loss of staff expertise and the general hollowing out of what is left leaves a woeful legacy for future generations.

Consider, where does the Universal Credit claimant who can’t afford a computer go when he’s told to claim online? What about the teenager who needs somewhere safe to go after school to read or study, when the gates to the library are closed to him? What of the gentleman who has had two strokes; his isolation only eased by trips to the library.  Councils like ours need to think how much they will have to spend picking up the pieces when all these people lose all these lifelines. Health, literacy, education, social services, even crime prevention are underpinned by the public library. Yet at least seven hundred have closed since 2010 and many others have been robbed of staff and have an increasingly precarious existence.

A public library is the local authority’s window on the world. Must it be curtains for them, due to the decisions of philistines and the withholding of investment, or can the public unite again to demand a comprehensive service? I’ll carry on asking for this and I hope you will, too.

About the author of this article

ombudsman3Shirley Burnham is a library campaigner who established the Friends of Old Town Library group in 2008 that became the Save Old Town Library Campaign in 2009. Latterly she has supported Save Swindon’s Libraries which was organised by Sarah Church to protect threatened libraries across the borough of Swindon.  Shirley also campaigns for accessible, professionally-run public libraries in other parts of the country.  You can follow her on Twitter @ShirleyBurnham

 

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A novelist’s guide to waiting

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The type of intensive, cloistered work of writers can lend itself to solitude. Sometimes, this can be accompanied by activity – such as running  – but it can also be just as much about stillness. In this article, author Tim Leach reflects upon the art of waiting; of embracing these moments of stillness to help aid your writing.

The art of the novelist is the art of waiting. Patience. Stillness. Not the lightning flash of inspiration, but in the waiting for the lightning.

Most of my writing time is spent waiting. Waiting before the half empty page, staring at one of the endless problems to be solved. A minute passes, another and another. Half an hour, perhaps even an hour since last a word was typed. A frightening boredom sets in and seeks to drive me from the chair, to do anything but keep still, hold on. Then a sudden flurry of fingers on the keys, the words springing to the page, the problem solved. And then the next problem, and once more, the waiting.

There is passion in this still, quiet patience. “Am I in love? –yes, since I am waiting,” says Roland Barthes. “The lover’s fatal identity is precisely this: I am the one who waits.” It can have the quality of trance or prayer. And there is courage in waiting too, for learn it well enough and you may outlast anything.

Outlast loneliness, for if one has mastered time what is there to fear from the absence of love? Wait out sadness, for the black waters always recede if you can be patient enough for the turning of the tide. And those other more murderous thoughts that circle the mind like jackals – they too must sleep, if you can stare them down for long enough. The hand that quests for the razor grows old and idle, the rattle of the pill bottle fades to silence, the eye that looks hungrily to high places and the third rail droops and grows heavy.

If writing has taught me anything, it is how to wait. It has been a year of hard waiting. I’ve waited with people and for people, waited out a draft of a book, waited out a madness too. Everything is begun and nothing is finished, much more is broken than is fixed.

But that does not matter. “In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing,” says Rilke, because poets know how to wait, too.

I hear the tick of the clock and the sound of the sea, and that particular silence in the concert hall before the pianist first lays their hands upon the keys. I am waiting.

About the author

Tim Leach

Tim Leach is a historical fiction author and creative writing teacher. His first novel, The Last King of Lydia, was published by Atlantic Books in Spring 2013, and has been longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize. A sequel, The King and the Slave‘, was published in 2014. His most recent novel, Smile of the Wolf  was published in 2018. He teaches creative writing at the University of Warwick, and he lives in Sheffield.

How to craft the perfect signature: a guide

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The benefits of writing on our physical and mental health are endless. Writing stimulates our brain, evokes creativity, helps expand our vocabulary, acts as a form of contemplation and relaxation, and so on. But beyond sitting down at our computer screens and finishing a character or chapter in a novel, the physical act of writing by hand is equally as important. Writing by hand is not only proven to help memory and retention, but it can improve many things including mood, gratitude, and creative thinking.

If writing in a journal, diary, or simply sitting down to handwrite letters to friends and family isn’t a part of your routine, it’s time to add it to your writing practice! One of the biggest motivators to making writing by hand a habit, is to invest in inspiring writing instruments. A solid notebook and pen are key. Fountain pens are great for creating a smooth, inspired line. If you’re not familiar with writing with a fountain pen, Invaluable created a helpful guide that details all you need to know. It includes everything from the anatomy of the pen to proper technique and hand positioning. Check it out below!

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The rest of the article on Invaluable is well worth a read, too – especially if you’re writing geeks like us. But, then, why would you not be? As Invaluable points out:

“The fountain pen stands as an iconic writing tool, steeped in history and tradition. From vintage models to modern examples.”

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Fountain pens are cool; in other words. And this article is your chance to recapture the lost art of penmanship and learn how to write with fountain pens. Check it out.

About the author of this post

Emma Welsh

Emma is a writer at Invaluable.com, the world’s leading online marketplace for fine art, antiques and collectibles. You can see more of her and her colleagues’ work at https://www.invaluable.com/blog/.

Found in the Crowd – the case for crowdfunding anthologies

Authors, publishers and literary journals are all finding new ways of connecting directly to their readers – and their wallets – on online platforms such as Kickstarter. In this article, Dan Coxon examines how the social financing can bring new book ideas to life. 

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Image by tai11/iStock

Recently there has been a lot of chatter about the future of the short story. Some feel that we’re seeing a resurgence of the short form, citing as proof the phenomenal success of George Saunders, or the unlikely appearance of Tom Hanks’s debut collection. Others feel that the popularity of stories has steadily declined in recent years. In his generally positive introduction to The Penguin Book of the British Short Story, even Philip Hensher was forced to admit that ‘reading short stories rewarded by competitions, I was struck by present-tense solitary reflections, often with characters lying on their beds affectlessly pondering… There was nothing there at all, apart from a fervent desire to win £30,000.’

What everyone appears to agree on is that publishers don’t know what to do with short fiction. Occasionally, the larger publishers will humour an established author – Hilary Mantel, Lionel Shriver – by allowing them a collection between the novels, but you’re unlikely to see many debuts. (Hanks is the obvious exception – but there’s no need to explain the marketing decision behind that book.) New authors are finding that only the smaller, independent presses are willing to take a punt on their genius.

The same is also true of anthologies. I’ve now crowdfunded two anthologies on Kickstarter: Being Dad: Short Stories About Fatherhood (Tangent Books), and most recently This Dreaming Isle (Unsung Stories), a collection of stories inspired by British folklore and local history. Increasingly, independent publishers are turning to crowdfunding as a viable option, and in particular it’s something that seems to be working for the humble anthology. Might there be a future for the short story after all?

In many ways, my experience with Being Dad was typical. Several medium-to-large publishers expressed an interest, but said that anthologies ‘didn’t sell’ (how they would know this when they didn’t actually publish any is one of life’s great mysteries). Eventually, I secured the interest of Bristol-based Tangent Books, who had the foresight to see that this was a book which had both a market and some great stories. There was one proviso: we had to raise the initial costs via crowdfunding.

I’ll admit, at first I was reluctant. There is still an element of resistance to the crowdfunding route, especially among older writers and readers. It’s sometimes seen as being worryingly close to vanity publishing – you go cap-in-hand to your friends and family, beg them for money, and then pay a publisher to print the book. At one end of the scale, this is certainly the case. As in any industry, there are unscrupulous businesses that are only too willing to take your money.

But in all the cases cited here, it wasn’t a matter of funding a book outright via ‘donations’, but rather a means of generating publicity and interest ahead of publication to ensure its success. I find it useful to think of the new crowdfunding model as a kind of inverse marketing: whereas the publicity campaign usually kicks in upon publication, here we did all our marketing in advance. I like to think that most of these people would have bought the book anyway – but by doing it ahead of publication, they helped reduce the risk to both publisher and authors, and therefore made the book possible.

I won’t go into the details here, but suffice it to say that crowdfunding a book is a long and arduous process. What has struck me most forcibly, however, is the interest we have received – and not just from people we knew. Yes, many of my friends backed the books I’ve crowdfunded, for which I’m hugely grateful. But we’ve received pledges from complete strangers from all corners of the globe – some of them extremely generous – and in the final accounting these constituted the vast majority of pledges. With both the books I’ve been involved in, we were able to pre-sell much of the first print run and the projects very quickly went into profit.

My experience is by no means unique. Last year Unsung Stories crowdfunded 2084, an anthology of short stories inspired by George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and they had a resounding success. Their funding goal was reached within eleven hours of the campaign launching, and the final total was almost ten times the original target.

I asked George Sandison at Unsung Stories why they’d decided to crowdfund the book, and this is what he had to say:

‘One of the things an anthology gives you, that a single-author book doesn’t, is a chance to reach the fans of every author involved. Between support from contributors with promoting the launch, and a larger group of people who may be interested in the project, you’ve got a healthy customer base to call on. And one of the things crowdfunding does really well, is get people involved in a project – they get their name in the book, collectible editions, artwork, special stuff they’ll want to keep. So combine those two things and you have a lot of people, who are empowered and made part of the process. Quite literally, they help make the book.’

This is what I’ve found too, and it suggests that there’s a very real business model that’s starting to emerge. Anthologies benefit from having several authors involved, and with their combined fan bases they are able to spread their appeal more widely. Having one or two well-established authors on board can also make it more appealing, especially to an audience that might not have taken a chance on the lesser-known writers.

Of course, it’s not just anthologies that are reaping the benefits of crowdfunding. Independent presses in general are gradually coming to realise its advantages, and many now have a success story to tell. Influx Press crowdfunded their own anthology, The Unreliable Guide to London, which has gone on to receive critical acclaim and was shortlisted for a number of awards. Following that, they also ran a crowdfunding campaign to fund the next year’s publications, which met its target with ease. Dead Ink and Dodo Ink have also turned to crowdfunding to get projects off the ground in recent years, and all are going from strength to strength.

Interestingly, Unbound enjoyed a huge crowdfunded success with Nikesh Shukla’s The Good Immigrant. While this was non-fiction, rather than fiction, it once again suggested that crowdfunding works for multi-author projects. I’ve since been told that Unbound will no longer consider anthologies, a decision that seems to undermine the idea of crowdfunding anthologies as a strong business model. It starts to make sense, however, when you bear in mind that Unbound are now part of the Penguin Random House behemoth. Clearly the mainstream publishing mantra that ‘anthologies don’t sell’ has already seeped through to the Unbounders.

Within the independent field, though, the anthology may actually be thriving, and crowdfunding is looking more and more like the way forward. Yes, short stories are a niche market – but they’re a market nonetheless. By targeting and actively involving readers who have an interest in short fiction, projects like Unsung’s 2084 and This Dreaming Isle are looking remarkably prescient, a glimpse into what the future might hold for anthologists everywhere. Publishers would do well to look to crowdfunding when they’re considering turning an anthology down. The market is still out there – you just have to search for it in the crowd.

About the author of this post

Dan Coxon author picDan Coxon edited the anthologies Being Dad (Tangent Books, 2016) and This Dreaming Isle (Unsung Stories, 2018), and is a contributing editor at The Lonely Crowd. He also edits and publishes a bi-annual journal of weird and eerie fiction, The Shadow Booth. His writing has appeared in SalonPopshotThe Lonely CrowdOpen PenWales Arts ReviewGutterThe Portland Review and Unthology 9 amongst others, and he was long-listed for the Bath Flash Fiction Award 2017. He runs an editing and proofreading business at www.momuseditorial.co.uk, and can be found on Twitter at @dancoxonauthor.

 

Book review: The study circle, by Haroun Khan

Nothing in the Rulebook’s resident book reviewer Tom Andrews digs into ‘The study circle’, by Haroun Khan, published by Dead Ink Books.

The Study Circle

This debut novel by Haroun Khan follows two friends from a South London council estate. Ishaq is devout and well educated, a regular at the titular Islamic study circle. His education at a university may give him a way out of the brutal poverty of the estate. His friend Shams is less fortunate and is obliged to make ends meet anyway he can, even if the means are not entirely legal or safe. The pair are caught between the gentle and wise Ayoub, the leader of the study circle, and Mujahid, who justifies his own criminal activities with radical politics and mangled religion.

Khan, writing from some personal experience, gives an unrelentingly grim portrait of the estate. It’s a hopeless and forgotten place, where violence is never far away, and the police are more of a threat than a source of protection. Choices and opportunities are impossibly limited; the characters wonder if it is possible for them to ever truly leave the place behind. Again and again, it is emphasised that outsiders simply do not understand the everyday challenges faced by young people in such an environment, abandoned and alienated while at the same time demonised and discriminated against by the society they live in.

This is a very timely, of the moment book that deals with issues of Islamophobia, racism and poverty in modern Britain. Unfortunately, it doesn’t deal with them in the context of an always engaging novel, but sometimes heavy-handedly in the form of extended essay passages between minimal slices of here and now events.

The last third of the novel is the first time that I had any sense of interest in what would happen next, any sense of drama. This welcome change of pace redeems at least some of what has come before, but how many would persevere to this point? It is not a long novel, but it would benefit from some editing.

The writer himself admits to feeling uneasy while writing this and says, ‘There is a lot I have said here that people can take issue with.’ That’s unavoidable when dealing with such heavyweight issues of race, religion and class. It certainly gave this reviewer uncomfortable things to ponder.

About the reviewer

tandrews

Tom Andrews is a Genetics graduate and book lover based in Somerset. He has previously attempted music and game reviews. He tweets at @jerevendrai 

Horrible Feet

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When I was ten I saw a ballerina tear her Achilles tendon. I was sitting on the side of the stage during a recital rehearsal, unrolling a leg warmer on my left thigh. It was April, and I could hear heavy rainfall beating against the emergency exit doors of the theatre. My face was warm, and one of my legs was aching with a cramp. I sipped some water from my bottle as I looked at the girl who was going over her pas de deux behind the curtains opposite me. I knew her name was Camilla because she was the most promising dancer in our school, even though she was only fifteen. She was talking angrily to her dance partner, Alex, but I could not hear what she was saying. He was a handsome boy with wavy hair, and all the girls in my class were obsessed with him. Through the white empire-waist costume Camilla was wearing, tight on her flat chest and broad around her thighs, her ribs and backbone were visible. When I saw her walking towards me, I hastily looked down.

“Is this yours?”

I raised my eyes. Camilla was pointing at my water bottle. I nodded. From up close, I noticed that her hair was dirty and that she had a violet bruise on her neck, the shape of a jellyfish. She had an unlit cigarette in her right hand. She grabbed my bottle with her free hand and gulped like she was dying of thirst. Then she put it back next to me.

“Camilla!” Maria, our ballet teacher, joined us on stage. She was pregnant at the time, her belly round like a melon, bags under her eyes that were puffy and purple. “What are you doing?”

“Smoking.” Camilla talked to Maria as if they were equals, which surprised me, as I feared Maria more than anyone else. Maria took the cigarette from Camilla’s hand and broke it in two.

“You’re rehearsing.” She stared into Camilla’s eyes until she nodded, like a rebellious daughter annoyed by her mother. “Get ready now!” Then Maria noticed me, sitting at their feet: “Cecilia, after Camilla bothers to try her choreography, it’s your turn.”

Camilla and Alex danced like swans. She looked pale and weightless, while he touched her and lifted her. They ran away from each other and then jumped back into each other’s arms. I counted her pirouettes as her gown opened like a moonflower. Then I heard a snap, and Camilla fell. It was an audible pop; it echoed all over the stage. Alex stepped back, unsure of what to do. The music went on. Camilla was not crying.

“Fuck,” she screamed, panting.

Maria hurried on stage as I looked from behind the curtain. She knelt next to Camilla and caressed the back of her ankle.

“It’s the tendon,” Maria said, “I’m calling an ambulance.”

“No!” Camilla almost shouted and grabbed Maria’s arm. Her ankle was twisted, quickly swelling up. I wanted to go closer but I couldn’t.

“She’ll be fine.” I turned, and Alex was right behind me. I wasn’t sure whether he was talking to me or not, but I could tell from his face that she wouldn’t be fine at all.

*

I straighten my back and grit my teeth. I can feel blood staining my pointe pads; I did not have time to place them properly on my toes.

“Smile!” Maria shouts to the entire class, yet it feels like she is addressing me only. I’m her favourite, but she hates me. She has been my teacher since I was three. Now, after thirteen years, nothing has changed. She still treats me as if she doesn’t understand that I have feelings. I suspect she doesn’t have any.

I complete the sequence of assemblés and échappés, my ballet shoes clacking against the polished wooden floor, my hand holding on to the barre. When the music stops, the smiles drop off every girl’s face at once. Maria takes the CD out of the player. We are all waiting for her response, our necks sweaty, our legs shaking with exhaustion. Once, she took the CD out and threw it on the floor, then started shouting at me, saying that I was “rude”, “stupid” and “unfit” for the class. Turns out I kept yawning before starting the choreography.

This time, Maria turns to us and says: “Class is over.” She never says “well done” or “good job” or anything like it, but, if she doesn’t complain or insult any of us, it means she’s satisfied. I’ve learnt that silence can also be a compliment.

We leave class dragging our feet, looking forward to getting rid of our uncomfortable tights. In the changing room, the radiators are not working. I take my bag and clothes and walk to the bathroom; I don’t feel like talking to anyone. Sara follows me. She is older than me, like everyone else in the class. This year, her acne is gone and her blonde hair has grown long and glossy. When she rehearses without tying it in a chignon, it swings and arches like a golden rainbow.

Sara sits on the cold floor of the bathroom and wipes her sweaty chest with toilet paper. She starts removing her shoes slowly, first the heels and then the toes, which have become glued to the pointe pads. I remove mine quickly; I’d rather feel the pain hitting me all together. I stuff the pointe pads in my bag, then I rapidly place my feet under the freezing water coming out of the sink. Sara does the same. Our feet look terrible, mine covered in blisters, hers missing a couple of nails.

“Ballet shoes are not for everyone,” Maria has always told us. When we were ten and got our first pairs of pointes, we all looked at them with excitement. The satin was shiny and the sole was hard; it smelled of leather. I used to put them on at home, and jump and spin around my mother’s grand piano, coming up with choreographies that I would then perform in front of my family.

After getting dressed, we walk back to the changing room through a narrow, poorly lit corridor, then to the entrance, where all the other girls are waiting for someone to pick them up. I walk past them, stuffing my hands inside the sleeves of my coat. I see the lights of the cars driving away from the parking lot, chasing one another until they fade into darkness. I look at the illuminated windows of the terraced houses and at the floating moon. The outlines of other passers-by seem ghosts under the lamp posts, and I am glad they cannot see my horrible feet.

*

Alex has come to class today for a new pas de deux assignment. I haven’t seen him in six years, since the day Camilla tore her tendon. Sara, whose mother is friends with Alex’s parents, says he passed the auditions for the ballet school at La Scala Theatre but then quit because he wanted to go to university to study psychology. He has changed: he has tattoos on both his hands, his skin is stretched on his muscles and a hint of beard has appeared on his chin. He is sitting on the floor next to Maria and watches us as we perform the choreography alone, one after the other. I see him out of the corner of my eye: sometimes he stares blankly, other times he checks us out in a way that makes me feel uncomfortable.

Emma, our headmistress, paces back and forth in the room, clapping her hands to the rhythm and shouting “posture!” She is in her forties, her hands are rough and wrinkly, and her long black hair looks dry. Still, when she moves, only hinting at the steps of the dance with her graceful limbs, she seems younger than any of us.

Maria is quiet, as always when Emma is around. Earlier today, I heard them talking about the costumes we have to wear for the next recital. Emma suggested we paint our faces red, which did not sound like a good idea to me. I still remember the dance contest when we had blue paint on our cheeks and so much glitter on our eyelids that some got into my left eye. It started to ache and water right in the middle of our performance, and everyone thought I had become emotional.

After she has observed all of us carefully, Emma says: “Cecilia will dance with Alex.”

The other girls whisper in disappointment.

“Does anyone have a problem with that?” Maria asks. Anna, who is shorter than me and as skinny as a twig, speaks up: “The best choreographies are always assigned to the same people.” Last week she almost fainted. I think she doesn’t eat much anymore; she keeps swallowing weight loss pills before class.

“Like who?” Maria stands up, walks closer to her.

“Cecilia is the only one who did a solo.” Anna’s top is slick with sweat and sticks to her back.

“Cecilia remembers the steps of the choreography and doesn’t complain.”

Anna flushes, and I notice her hands are shaking. Emma takes me by the arm and turns to everyone else: “You can leave early today girls. Good job everyone.”

I remain alone with Emma, Maria and Alex. He stands up and stretches. I wipe the sweat from my forehead.

“This is not a pas de deux as you imagine it. It’s not too graceful, too perfect, too clean,” Emma says. I look at Alex’s tattoos and then at my pink bodysuit.

“I want this to start quietly. You smile, you touch each other gently. Then you let go. Can you do this Cecilia?”

“Yes,” I lie.

“Good. Then let’s just try one sequence before you go home. Alex’s running after you, he catches you. So you stand and your arms reach out… remember?” We both nod and get into position.

“Five, six, seven, eight!”

Alex runs after me, and his hands brush against my naked back. He takes me, and I raise my arms to the ceiling.

“Hold it!” says Emma, “Hold it Cecilia, you are a tree, a tree in the wind!”

I let my arms swing gently, and wonder what kind of tree I am.

“Your arms are branches, your hands are leaves!”

I feel Alex’s hands tight on my waist, his breath on my neck. I move my fingers and wrists, and tilt my head back, laying it on Alex’s shoulder. I decide that I am a weeping willow, like the one that grows in my grandmother’s garden, shading the daisies and cobblestones against the sun. Its branchlets turn yellow in autumn and look like a cascade of golden tears.

After class, Alex lights a cigarette outside, cupping his hand around the end. The tattoos on his hands are feathers, one for each finger. He has nice knuckles. I wonder if he remembers that I was there when Camilla got hurt. But that was a long time ago.

“Are you sad?” he asks me.

“Why would I be?” I remove the pins from my hair and let it loose on my back. He watches me as if we were intimate and not two strangers.

“Your friend hates you because you got the part.” He tilts his head a bit, his smile is cheeky.

“She’s not my friend.”

He laughs, ties his curly hair in a knot and walks away.

“See you tomorrow,” he says, without turning around.

*

Back home, I skip dinner and fill the bathtub with hot water and vanilla soap, as the smell of minestrone comes from downstairs. I undress slowly, my muscles tired and aching. I throw my clothes on the floor like waste paper. The water burns my skin but I slowly sink until I am completely immersed, my hair dancing around my face in slow motion. I close my eyes.

I hear a muffled knock on the door. When I re-emerge, my mum is folding my clothes, crouching on the bathroom floor. I rub the soap from my eyes and look at my toes that creep out of the suds, covered with plasters.

“How was class?” my mum asks.

“Tiring.”

“And this new guy Alex?”

“Too good.”

“Better than you?”

“Yes.”

My mum runs her fingers through my wet hair: “Should you practise more?”

“I already practise two hours every day. I also need to study.”

“But if you want to do the auditions for La Scala…”

The moonlight filters through the slats of the blind, striping her face. She takes my feet into her hands and rubs them gently.

“It’s my life not yours,” I say.

“Don’t talk to me like that.”

My mum wanted to be a ballerina but her family couldn’t afford to pay for her ballet classes. Once, I saw a photo of her dressed up in a light blue tutu, taking a bow in front of an invisible audience. The colours were faded and there was a blemish on the lower part of her face, so I couldn’t figure out whether she was smiling or not.

“I’m sorry, I’m just tired.”

“I’ll bring you something to eat.” She leaves the door slightly open, the light of the corridor illuminating the flowery tiles of the wall. I fall asleep in the cooling water, my head resting on the edge of the tub.

*

“Five, six, seven, eight!”

Alex and I rehearse two hours every day after my class with Maria. Emma supervises the choreography, sitting on a white plastic chair, swinging her head left and right to the rhythm. Alex does not seem to struggle with anything. I sweat too much, weigh too much, forget too much.

*

“Five, six, seven, eight!”

Some days Emma dances with Alex to show me what I do wrong. As they sway around the room in perfect harmony, they seem to hear each other’s thoughts, their steps echo in tune. I feel like an off-key note.

“We have to do this together, you know,” Alex says to me as we take a break, stretching at the barre. “It’s like finding a compromise.” I think that I’m not good at compromising but I nod.

*

“Five, six, seven, eight!”

My horoscope says: “It is important for you to keep at least one foot on the ground, as powerful emotions are likely to take over the scene.” As Alex lifts my body in the air, his hands on my thighs, my back arched backwards to form a right angle with my hips, I wonder if the “foot on the ground” thing is physical or metaphorical. I start liking our practise, our stretching breaks, the cigarette he smokes before we go back home, hungry and exhausted.

*

“Five, six, seven, eight!”

I learn that he is always a bit early with the tempo, that pirouettes are not his strength, but he jumps so high he seems to defy gravity. I learn that our bodies have a way of reading each other that slips beyond the things we tell – or fail to tell – each other. When my fingers brush against his shoulders I imagine I am opening windows, letting his light peek through the clouds.

When he runs after me, Emma repeats: “Cecilia is the direction you are going Alex! She is your path!”

*

“Five, six, seven, eight!”

Emma hasn’t come to class today because her daughter is sick, so we have to practise without her. I look at Alex and myself in the mirror, at how his tattoos jar with my pale skin, his hair band that barely holds his curls back with my perfect chignon. The floor is dusty and covered in signs left by my pointes. We try the choreography until the sunshine does not come through the windows anymore, and we are left with the feeble light that comes from the bulbs hanging from the ceiling.

“I’d better go home for dinner,” I say as I put on my oversized sweater. Alex nods.

“Do you want me to walk you?” He has never asked me that before.

“That’d be nice.”

He smiles, picks up his bag. I open the door and, as I am about to walk out, he closes it from behind me, covering my hand with his. He kisses me, and I taste mint and smoke and remember when, as a child, I was looking at him with Camilla, wanting to be like her. I am like her now but I’m not sure it is a good thing.

*

On Saturday Sara insists that we go to a house party thrown by a boy from Anna’s high school. I drink too much beer, the kitchen table is sticky, and the people keep jumping in the swimming pool with their clothes on.

I love you like a love song baby. Anna and Sara drag me to the centre of the living room to dance. I look at them and copy their moves; the rhythm is repetitive and shallow but it’s nice to let go. And I keep hitting re-peat-peat-peat-peat. Anna takes my hand and makes me spin; she doesn’t seem to hate me now, she looks beautiful in her leather dress, her curls loose. A tall boy comes up to me, offers me a plastic cup filled with wine. I, I love you like a love song baby.

“That’s Marco, he’s from my school, go and talk to him,” Sara whispers in my ear and pushes me towards him.

“So you’re a dancer,” Marco smiles, a bit awkwardly. He is wearing a nice, ironed shirt. I take the cup from his hand and gulp down the wine.

“Yes, but what I should really have been is a singer. Everyone kept saying it for years.”

“Wow. Really?” He sips from his drink. He seems more confident now, enjoying the idea of me singing for him.

“No. That was a joke. No one has ever told me that.”

He stares at me, confused, then laughs out loud. Before he can say anything, I feel the weight of someone’s arm across my chest and I turn and see Alex, a cigarette between his full lips, a wrinkled blue shirt looking too big on him. The music grows louder and Alex carries me outside, leaving Marco and his ironed shirt empty handed. The street is quiet and still.

“Let’s go home,” Alex says. He drops his cigarette, and I watch it glowing and bursting into sparks as it hits the ground. He drives me home, in silence. Re-peat-peat-peat-peat. The screen of my phone illuminates with Sara’s message: “you okay? Why did you leave?” I type: “practise tomorrow,” and wonder why I keep doing this, going to ballet classes, spending most of my days with people I don’t really like. I come to the painful realisation that I don’t have an answer.

Alex kisses me goodnight in front of my door, then drives away. From outside, I see my parents’ faces lit up in front of the television screen. I unlock the front door with difficulty, then walk up the stairs to my room. I hear the soft steps of my father’s slippers following me from the living room. I jump on my bed and hide under the sheets, my alcohol smelling clothes still on. My father’s head pops in, accompanied by a gentle knock.

“How was the party?”

“Fun.”

“Your mum is upset. The recital is in one week.”

“Tell her it’s fine.”

He nods. Doesn’t leave. It looks as if he is about to speak but then he closes my bedroom door behind him, and I am left alone in the dark.

*

I draw a big amount of brown eyeliner across Sara’s eyelids and smudge it with my fingertips, as we have run out of eye shadow. She is struggling to flatten her chest inside her bright red tutu.

“Can you stay still?” I ask.

“Why do I have big boobs?” she moans.

I spread some glitter on her cheeks and chest, then I fix my own headdress, whose orange and yellow feathers won’t stay in place. We are standing in a corner of the changing room, next to a harlequin costume that is hanging from the ceiling and keeps ticking our necks with its sleeves. The room is an explosion of colours, as girls and boys of every age walk around, trying to find space for their own bags and costumes, swearing whenever a hairpin falls and gets lost on the messy floor. Most of the older girls are stretching, leg warmers wrapped around their ankles and feet. The place smells of sweat and deodorant. The music that is playing upstairs, on the stage, is muffled by the buzzing that reigns backstage. Every now and then, the head of a ballet teacher pops in and tells us to lower our voices.

I crouch on the floor and close my eyes, focusing on the sound of Sara’s hands rifling through my make-up bag. I wonder where Alex is; he is late and I am meant to perform with him right after the dance with Sara and the other girls. I feel Sara’s fingertips finishing the touches of my winged eyeliner.

“You’re up next,” Maria’s voice comes from the stairs. I know she is talking to us, even before she walks down and repeats: “Cecilia, Sara you’re up next. Then I want Anna, Clara, Francesca, Paola! Quick!” She grasps Sara and me by the arms and drags us upstairs. We leave the changing room and enter the darkness of the stairs. We go past younger ballerinas who are already waiting in their yellow tutus, biting their nails. Emma’s husband is smoking by the door at the top of the stairs, keeping it open; the cold air makes me shudder and paranoid abut my muscles.

Maria speaks on my behalf: “Shut the door, Mario! Can’t you see they’re about to go on stage?” She keeps holding our arms, as if we weren’t able to walk by ourselves.

I stand behind the curtains with Sara, looking at the girls on the other side of the stage, as they twitch their hands and fix their shoulder straps and headdresses. Emma presents our choreography, a dance inspired by The Firebird with music by Igor Stravinsky. Then the audience applauds, and the lights go down.

My pointe shoes do not make any sound as I walk towards the centre of the stage with Sara, the other ballerinas spreading around us. I look up and smile; the light suddenly illuminates me, and the music starts playing. I stare at the upper part of the audience, where faces seem to melt into one another. My arms are wings, my fingers are light and long, my palms are speaking. When I jump near the curtains, I see Maria’s apprehensive face. She is counting to help us keep the rhythm. I finish the dance landing on my feet after an assemblè. The audience claps and shouts, I can see my mum’s proud face in the crowd; she is sitting in the front row.

We run backstage, and, in a second, a thousand hands are touching me, removing my tutu, working on my chignon and make up.

“She’s up next!” Maria says. Sound and light operators make room, pushing younger girls behind. Alex, already in his white costume, is stretching his neck with his eyes closed as if I wasn’t here. I stand half naked behind the curtains, trying to fit into my empire dress, as Maria wipes off my Firebird make up with a wet tissue. An assistant covers my cheeks in white foundation and my lips and cheekbones with red lipstick.

“The hair!” Maria removes the pins of my chignon, pulling the skin of my head. My eyes tear up but I have no time to recompose myself, as Maria pushes me towards the stage. I feel Alex’s hand into mine and I follow him.

There is only the two of us now, our bodies curved one on the other like two piled up spoons. We start dancing in the silence and our shoes echo on the floor, our breaths fill the air. We dance in circles, as if there was a revolving door between us, its glass never letting us touch each other. Then the music starts, his fingers grip mine, and I start doing my pirouettes. In a second, my neck paralyses. I lose my balance and fall; I feel Alex’s hands letting me go as I land on my ankle. A shooting pain makes me gasp. I try to stand up as gracefully as I can, but my leg cannot carry me and I fall again. I hear Maria’s whispers behind the curtains: “stop the music for fuck’s sake.” Silence, followed by Maria’s and Emma’s light steps on stage.

“I am sorry but we have to interrupt the recital, our ballerina has been injured, nothing serious, no need to worry.” Emma speaks into her microphone, and her words echo in the theatre. I raise my eyes and see the audience, all silent and staring back at me. One small figure detaches from the mass, the gracious silhouette of my mum, running towards the stage. She is wearing her best silk dress.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I whisper, as Maria and Alex lift me up and carry me backstage.

Back in the darkness of the curtains, the cold pavement is like freezing water against my back. My mum and Alex remove my ballet shoes, exposing my damaged feet that I don’t want anyone to look at.

“You’ll be alright,” Alex tells me.

*

The parking lot is empty in the early morning light, except for Maria’s light blue beetle car. I know I can always find her here in the morning; she prepares the choreographies before the afternoon classes. From the window of the ground floor, I see her standing at the barre, stretching her arms. I limp inside with my crutches.

“You look better,” Maria says when she sees me. There is a freshness in her face that I have never noticed, maybe it is the summer air or her blonde hair, always messily tied up, now loose and brushed.

“Last week before I can put these crutches away,” I smile.

“When do you finish your physical therapy?”

“Two more months.”

“So you can only do the winter recital. That’s fine. You can catch up with the choreographies afterwards, maybe you can come here every day after lunch, we’ll work together.” She speaks hastily, as if she was eager to make things go back to the way they were as fast as she can.

“I’m not coming back here,” I blurt it out all at once.

“What did you say?”

“I’m not coming back to classes in September,” I repeat.

“Why?”

“I want to focus on school, then try to go abroad for university.”

Maria takes a strand of my hair and smoothes it with her nervous touch.

“Think about it. You still have time to change your mind.”

“Yes,” I say, but I know I won’t. “Thanks for everything you have done for me. I’ll come back and visit.”

Maria seems to struggle with words.

“You are one of our best dancers,” she says.

“You have been a great teacher. You pushed us to our limits.” I turn around, the wooden floor creaking under my crutches.

Her voice follows me: “Alex says you haven’t been replying to his calls.”

“Say sorry to him from me. I’ll see him around, I guess.”

About the author

CostanzaCostanza Casati is a writer and screenwriter. After completing her Master’s in Writing at the University of Warwick, she currently works as a freelancer journalist for the Canadian magazine HOLR and as a screenwriter for Erminio Perocco’s feature-length documentary about the 16th century Venetian painter Tintoretto. The first chapter of her historical novel has been published in Manifest: New Writing from Warwick and her short film Sguardi is available on Youtube.

Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton, and a poet

As poetry enjoys somewhat of a renaissance thanks to social media, ever more aspiring writers are using platforms like Twitter to get noticed. With over 100,000 social media followers, Birmingham-based poet Maavi Raja writes about his poetic journey so far.

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When you think about poetry and making something like poetry as a career, or as a full-time passion, money or profit is far from the first thing one thinks about when getting into this field. Poetry begins as a hobby, or a natural inclination to beautify things with something as simple as the words we create, the words we speak, the words we think; manufactured and developed from the feelings we establish.

Of course, there is profit to be made, if you become a best seller. But that’s not what it’s ever been about for me. I developed my love of poetry when I was finishing school – this was 10 years ago and, back then, kids my age saw poetry as soppy and something to be looked down on.  But the last couple of decades have always been about fashion trends and pop culture phenomena. Trying to poke your head up in the classroom and make a case for poetry when everyone is obsessed with the latest celebrity trend, video game, TV show or tech gadget isn’t necessarily the easiest way to make yourself extremely popular.

But, still, poetry was something I loved. To begin with – I read and read whatever poems I could find. Then I started to write my own work – though I didn’t write an original piece until I was 18. For a long time, I tried to hide away what I’d written until my friends discovered them and told me I had a talent. They started asking why I am wasn’t sharing my work and writing with the world. Of course, I had no belief in myself or my capabilities at that point. I never went to college or university, so my level of education was no more than GCSEs.

It’s easy to point at statistics that show that our current social model often leads to inequality – for example, that children from low-income neighbourhoods are far less likely to get a higher education than those from rich areas. But the truth is, as someone so minimally educated, I genuinely never believed I could achieve anything. Yet my friends believed in me and pushed me to make a start and, so, I started to share my work on Twitter.

It was 2012 when I received my first accolade and bit of recognition, and to be quite honest, this was what changed my life completely.

I received celebrity recognition from Kim Kardashian (yes, that Kim Kardashian), who tweeted me and told me she loved my work. This resulted in the building of my own fan base and the accolades just continued to come in, year by year. I received much more celebrity recognition, just recently, from Paris Hilton. It’s a little ironic that the same sort of pop culture trends that were distracting all my classmates from poetry were the ones who helped kick start my poetry career.

In 2016, I was invited to do an interview on BBC radio. I was interviewed about my writing and the purpose of my writing, which is of course, to tend to the younger generation on the experiences I write about. This was prior to my first book “A Poetic Life”.
Now, I’ll admit this book didn’t do well. This was my first attempt and I had no idea what I was doing and the formatting was very poor. This motivated me to improve and do better. The following year, I released “The Heart’s Speech”, which sold over 300 copies with minimal marketing. I’m so thankful for all those readers who bought the book, it’s an incredible feeling to see your hard work connect with other people. This year, 2018, I released “Moonlit Verses” which I like to think is my best work (of course I’d say that, wouldn’t I?). I have no idea how well this will sell; but I can only hope that my work will reach the audience I’m hoping it will.

This year, I’ve also started performing at Poetry Jams organised by the BeatFreeks collective. They host a poetry session on the first Thursday of every month at different venues for a set time. Most recently, it’s being hosted at Waylands Yard.

To be quite honest, I never believed I’d be here today. I sit on 140,000+ followers on Twitter. I have my own author page on Amazon, a verified knowledge panel on google which basically means now, that the internet recognises me and acknowledges me as an established author. I’ve dreamt for something like this for a long time, but I continue to dream and I’ll continue to graft as I always have done and see where my writing will take me in the future.

About the author of this post

Maavi RajaMaavi Raja, 25, is a poet from Birmingham, UK. From the age of 18, Maavi has been writing and sharing his works with the social media world. Inspired and influenced by personal and external experiences, Maavi wants to contribute to the world in his own way. Now author of 3 books, Maavi has amassed over 100,000 followers on Twitter, alongside celebrity recognition and various accolades. Maavi’s dreams have slowly manifested piece by piece and continues to hope they do as he continues to write.

Promoting a Book as a Disabled Writer – My Precarious Year, by Peter Raynard

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Peter Raynard’s debut poetry collection ‘Precarious’, is published by Smokestack Books

In a hotel room on a bright August Monday morning this year in Cork, I am near to tears. My wife and I are packing our bags – she to go home to England, me to stay in Ireland and do two readings as part of a poetry exchange programme between Cork and my home town of Coventry. We had a lovely weekend away, eating nice food, and taking in the sites, which included the Pride festival on Sunday. I was exhausted. But I was exhausted before we came away. I felt depressed. But I felt depressed before we came away. I was very anxious, but I was…. Such emotions come in waves, sometimes as a result of events like these, other times just simmering away – they rarely leave me.

Having a book published is an incredible feeling; full of excitement, joy, and fear. Precarious is my debut poetry collection, and so one reason fear raises its hydra head, is the dread that my work is no good. That my publisher was wrong believing in me, and the readers will find that out. Being working class and having never written a creative word until my early 30s, I still have to pinch myself when I say that I am a writer but ‘imposter syndrome’ persists. Luckily, those who have read my book, have really liked it – poetry and non-poetry readers alike. One of the greatest feelings is knowing that my friends, and their friends, have enjoyed it; one even took the book into work and read my poems from the factory floor.

I have poly-endocrine disorder, which means my adrenal, thyroid, and pituitary glands either don’t work at all, or only drip feed me vital hormones when they should be giving me a steady flow. Essentially, I have no fight or flight to life’s stresses, and a weird metabolism (fast, fast, slow, slow, slow, slow, st…). When I am at home, doing the day job of domestic care (a.k.a. househusband), and writing – whether it be features for my blog Proletarian Poetry, or editing another poet’s work, I am better able to manage it, even though it regularly involves retreating to my bed.

Although a publisher helps with the selling of your book, most writers know they have to get out there to promote it, and this is where the problems started for me. Thus far this year I have read in London (three times), Cheltenham, Oxford, Newcastle, Huddersfield, Ledbury, Bristol, Hay-on-Wye and Derby, with Swindon, Merthyr Tydfill and Coventry to come. I love reading to audiences. I have always enjoyed being in front of people. In my previous job, working for a charity as an organizational development consultant, I spoke in front of people from the World Bank, to small community centres in North England, to a group of fishermen on a beach in the Philippines. Before each front-facing event, I would be sick with worry (I would be sick before playing competitive sports at school). But it was not a sickness brought on by a lack of confidence, or that something would go wrong, it just felt, and still feels like a natural reaction to presenting myself and my ideas or poetry in front of strangers – albeit strangers who are nearly always lovely people.

“You deal with depression in a solitary way. You withdraw from people, social media, the news.”

My readings in Cork went well. I was very well looked after by Paul Casey from the legendary O’Bheal and my poetry partner Jane Commane. It was a great experience, meeting lots of new people, talking poetry, mental health and politics. I felt so at home in an ‘Irish’ setting, one I had grown up with in my part of Coventry (known as ‘County’ Coundon). On my return, I was unwell for about two weeks. This came in the form of bed-ridden exhaustion, anxiety, physical pain, depression, and nausea.

This has been a year of extremes. Like sliding into a warm pool with bubbling water, only to be hauled out naked by the throat and thrown into the rain lashed sea. Trying to swim back to shore involves a whirligig of thoughts; each interaction or conversation with another person is gone over endless times – did I listen to the person enough? Was I arrogant, self-centred, unempathetic? So, when meeting lots of people, or having a number of things to do, the swirl of thoughts is overwhelming. I read on that Internet somewhere that people aren’t programmed to interact with hundreds of people in one sitting.

You deal with depression in a solitary way. You withdraw from people, social media, the news. If you can, you seek help – GPs, CBT practitioners, therapists. Measures of improvement are tested by dipping a toe back in. Lurk on social media without comment. Lightly pick over benign news items, or seek out intellectual solace through books and podcasts (I listen to episodes of In Our Time and This American Life). You may then go to another person’s reading. Passing these tests, you start to re-engage.

This is a dangerous time for those recovering from depression. It has been likened to ripping off a scab, you retreat to tend to an open wound, one you knew wasn’t going to go away altogether, but hoped it wasn’t going to be as painful as before.

About two years ago, when I was not out in the world very much, I made the positive move to give up hope. My endocrine conditions were not going to be cured, and their effects would have to be managed. I did this having read the poet, Lucia Perillo’s experience of living with Multiple Sclerosis. This quote from her summed up my decision. “Hope is ravenous like the gulls, and we are being eaten alive.” I am lucky that I am not young and won’t have to deal with this for another forty years. I am lucky that I have family and friends, who although don’t really understand what I am going through, are there to support me. Importantly, I don’t need to claim benefits, as my partner works.

I have done much more than I ever thought I would in my life. I have a great set of friends, travelled the world both with work and leisure (often the two combined), got three degrees, written and edited books, married a wonderful person, have two great sons, a niece and two nephews (three if you include my sister’s dog). That must be what matters now. My health can’t cope with high levels of engagement with folk or issues anymore – I really am not up for the fight, in fact the language of fighting in ill-health terms is very damaging. People don’t lose a fight with being ill, they do as they are advised and treated, and look to a positive outcome.

All of this will happen in the next couple of years – a slow withdrawal. And, despite high levels of anxiety, I am really looking forward to the rest of the readings I’ll be doing over the next six months. But I will also look forward to not doing them, and concentrating on writing. Maybe I’ll write a book of fiction. My poetry brother Richard Skinner, Director of Faber Academy, is the master teacher of novel writing, so I may try my hand at that. I just have to make sure it is never published! Now that is something I can control. Sláinte.

About the author of this article

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Peter Raynard is the author of two books of poetry. ‘Precarious’ his debut collection is published by Smokestack Books, and ‘The Combination: a poetic coupling of the Communist Manifesto’ by Culture Matters. He is also the editor of Proletarian Poetry: poems of working class lives – http://www.proletarianpoetry.com

Book review: Ghosting for beginners, by Anna Saunders

Ghosting for beginners

Anna Saunders is haunted by many things: myth, legend, her political concerns, environmental problems and, most engagingly, the ghosts of people she knows, living and dead. This diverse range of ghouls work their way into her fifth and latest poetry collection Ghosting for Beginners.

Haunting can be a tricky theme to pull off, as it’s well-ploughed territory and can lead easily to Gothic melodrama or cliché. However, Saunders avoids this by stretching the theme a long way, using the ongoing theme of ghosts to expose interesting perspectives on other ideas, rather than appearing to write strictly to a gothic or eerie theme. It feels as though the poems emerged organically, united by feeling rather than the need to stick to a particular topic. The book as a whole feels melancholy: the ghost of Saunders’ father emerges gradually over the course of the collection. There is a moving moment in ‘The Ventriloquist Dolls of the Dead’ when Saunders sees a familiar gesture of her father in a stranger. She imagines her father is somehow doing this himself, using the man’s body to reach out, briefly, from beyond the grave: ‘The gestures are identical/and he’s moving as if/he were a dummy/brought out of the box long enough/for your dead dad/to show that even though you can’t see his lips move/he still fancies a chat.’

Brexit, Grenfell and ongoing political turmoil all make appearances in the poetry. In ‘A Murmuration is Seen Above the City’, Saunders imagines the starlings above the city of London as the ghosts of Cabinet Ministers, ‘wishing that in life/they had acted differently/but airborne, and dead, it is too late.’ She doesn’t hold back. Working with an impressive command of language and a rich knowledge of myth and legend, Saunders communicates effectively and efficiently through her poems. There is a touch of Angela Carter about the way she sees people and animals, likes to examine humans through their ghosts. For me, reading Saunders reminded me of studying Carter at school – words like ‘pelage’ and ‘papillae’ had me reaching for a dictionary but, as with Carter, having to stop and take stock to soak in the words on the page didn’t hinder the experience. You’re not supposed to speed through this stuff. The more I read, the more I find some texts are like Magic Eye puzzles. You don’t see it, you don’t see it, you don’t see it and then you see it. And then you have go out and tell everyone, because you’ve done something meaningful.

But there is light in the grief, in the disillusionment. Even at her most political, Saunders has an almost Neil Gaiman-esque twinkle in her eye, bringing characters from myth and legend into our world, having the Angel of Revelation struggle with the bead-curtain hanging at the entrance of the New Age Centre, Jesus spurn the ticket barriers on the London Overground. There’s a fun side to the hauntings – not all ghosts are bad.

The strength of the collection is the portraits of the real people and the glimpses we have of Saunders’ own interiority. In its weaker moments, the poetry spirals into abstraction, tries to do too much – the ideas behind ‘The Ghost Room’ are interesting but rely on sensations too far removed from everyday experience to be profound. We hear the Ghost Room is ‘airy and immaterial as this stanza/but it will occupy your thoughts.’ Far more interesting is the plea of the wife, telling her husband to put on a dark coat so that their neighbours will not mistake him for a ghost and kill him. The poem ‘I said Thomas, There is a Piece of Work About the Ghost’ is based on real events; a man tried for killing a labourer called Thomas that he took for the Hammersmith Ghost. Thomas’ widow had reportedly warned her husband that, in his white overalls, he looked particularly ghostly. Told from the point of view of the wife as she warns her husband, the poem is urgent and moving, tragic yet bizarre. Haunting.

Saunders draws some beautiful portraits in this collection. The pheasant ‘dangling clumsy from string like a plummy yo-yo,’ in ‘Befriending the Butcher’ is startling and real. However, she has a tendency to take poems a beat too far. The lines ‘No longer able to walk, he scored the floor/with wheel chair marks as if ticking items off a list’ would make for a blistering ending, but Saunders goes on to add ‘and the single bar of the fire was a winter sunset;/a thin scarlet line, blazing with its own heat/as it slipped down silently, into the dark.’ Pretty though this image is, I’d stick with the old man, carving his achievements into the ground with the wheel of his chair, to which he is bound forever.

We have the same situation in ‘A Murmuration is Seen Above the City’, returning again to the ghosts of politicians as birds, swirling above Westminster, Saunders ends the poem by saying, ‘We shiver, as we watch them wheel and turn,/Our bones almost through our skin.’ This is haunting; but it would be far eerier if the poem was left to burn at the end of the previous stanza: ‘The sky is bruised with the bloated bodies of/Cabinet Ministers/fat with stolen fruit, they eclipse the sun.’

However, the final stanza of ‘Sowing Seeds’ is perfect. The poem is a meditation on climate change, on Donald Trump’s denial of its existence and the difference we, the little people, can make. Walking with a friend or partner on the beach, Saunders brings the poem to a close with the lines ‘The sea, its salty tongue working/like someone who will not stop speaking,/gets the final word’.

A collection occupied by the idea of what we leave behind, Ghosting for Beginners left me feeling agitated and comforted in equal measure – both aftertastes intended by Saunders I’m sure. The poems are successful in portraying the world and humanity as contradictory; friendly and unforgiving, beautiful and ugly. And who knows what we’ll leave behind.

Ghosting for beginners is available for purchase directly from Indigo Dreams online http://www.indigodreams.co.uk/anna-saunders-gfb/4594255832

About the reviewer

Ellen LavelleEllen Lavelle is a postgraduate student on The University of Warwick Writing Programme. An aspiring novelist and screenwriter, she has worked with The Young Journalist Academy since the age of fourteen, writing articles and making short films for their website. She’s currently working on a crime novel, a historical fiction novel and the script for a period drama. She interviews authors for her blog and you can follow her @ellenrlavelleon Twitter.

“What It Was Like, What Happened and What It’s Like Now”

There are countless examples of famous creative artists struggling with mental health issues or turning to addiction. Yet for every troubled genius who made it, there are countless others who didn’t. In this article, musician Christopher Tait shares his personal experiences of living with addiction – and what can be done to help provide support for struggling artists and musicians.

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“What It Was Like, What Happened and What It’s Like Now”

– The AA Big Book

I vaguely remember being curled up on a filthy mattress, praying to anyone/thing to make the pain go away. I recognized the pain – acute pancreatitis. It felt like there was an alien pushing though my sternum, and my veins were on fire. I’d experienced it before after some serious benders, and the only relief was to lay fetal-style and wait for it to pass. Or…go to the ER and beg for Dilaudid.

It was 2005 and I lived above Detroit’s premiere (and only) goth club in an old hotel called The Leland. The weekend I moved in, someone jumped off the roof after taking acid and wandering from the basement club up to the top of the building. That set the tone for my stay there.

I was gone half the year on tour, and the other half was spent living like a vagrant and shoveling tour profits up my nose. I’m not sure what made me think that that could go on forever, but as soon as I felt better, I’d escape the ER and walk down the hall, past my room with the dirty mattress where I prayed for help, and head straight down to the dealer’s place. (It helps to have the goods in-house during those cold Michigan months, fyi. While I enjoyed the thrill of the hunt, there was nothing like buying a baggie from the guy down the hall).

When you’re in it, bad things keep happening to you and it’s always someone else’s fault. And incredibly, if you say that enough times you start to believe it.

Flash forward six years to 2011 – I wake up in a hotel in Nashville, not sure where I am. Again. No other band members are staying in the room, and there is vodka left in the jug. It was always a bad sign if there was booze left and the jug was in the trash – that meant I hadn’t put it there. It was probably thrown out based on behavioral backlash. At first it was just another morning of waking up and wondering what I’d done, and searching for keys, wallet, phone, etc. etc.; forget repeat; forget; repeat.

I woke to several texts and a knock at the door. I was sat down and told I’d be leaving the tour. After driving the tour van over a laptop (I hadn’t had a drivers license in nearly a decade), I repeatedly tried to fight multiple members of the group. I had this super power – when I was at my most unhappy with myself, I’d start drilling at everyone around me. Shockingly, my hotel roomies had had enough and gone elsewhere.

When I read back on what I just wrote, it sounds like badly-drawn Bukowski without much glory or wit. All signs point to insanity, but not when you’re in it. When you’re in it, bad things keep happening to you and it’s always someone else’s fault. And incredibly, if you say that enough times you start to believe it. The universe was against me, and the bottle was my only friend. Or the dope man, on nights where I had enough scratch.

Flash forward again to 2013 – I’m on tour with Electric Six in the states, then Canada. Sober for two years and trying to stay sane on the road. I’m drilling at myself by this point, and my head is rampant with anxiety and paranoid fear that the others I’m touring with think that either I’m boring now, or that I’m a self-righteous turd (the ego is truly an amazing thing; two weeks into a van tour, everyone is just trying to get a few hours sleep, five minutes of peace, and laundry on a lucky week).

The fact that I think anyone gives a shit either way about me or anything other than staying sane at that point in the tour is in itself delusional. I’ve tried to go to meetings on the road; local AA info has led me to a bowling alley in Asbury Park, and an open field in Little Rock. In Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, we arrive late. There are no meetings around, my data doesn’t work, there is no green room, the Starbucks is closed. It is freezing cold out. I sit in the van and listen to an old AA tape on a laptop (Adam T – La Hacienda Reunion. An old chestnut in the world of AA speakers). I start to think to myself that it should be easier than this.

“Communication…that’s where the change began and continues”

I’m not here to rattle off war stories without purpose, and I don’t regret every single thing I did when I was actively using either. I’m here to present a cautionary tale, and a solution that helped me: Communication. At it’s very heart, that’s where the change began and continues personally.

When I’m on tour, I go to meetings. I have a show to do and beyond that, the gig environment is none of my business. When I’m off tour, I work with others that share the same issues. “Defects” even, as you often hear in recovery. I like the term “Character Defects”. It reminds me that it’s not something I can put a bandaid on, hoping it will go away. It’s there; But the garbage floating around my head – the anxieties, fears, and apocalyptic inclinations will recede if I discuss them with others who might be in a similar boat. And that’s enough, with regularity. If I open up, they diminish. If I keep them in, they get heavier until the bow breaks and I’m screaming at people who can’t hear me down the express way.

When I let my guard down, I can get vulnerable. I can laugh about this shit. I can sit down and talk with strangers anywhere in the world that relate, and the weight is lifted. I’m not alone, and much as my ego would like me to be the only single “tortured artist” on the planet that’s ever dealt with this, I’m not. We’re everywhere.

Before, my only answer to anything was to jump into a bottle. I suppose it was easier, until it wasn’t. But this is better. Life is still life, but I can handle it without the crutch of numbing myself. I live with, understand, and appreciate consequence and accountability. I have options; I don’t have to let everyone down, I can be there for myself and others, my bills are paid, I know where my wallet is etc etc repeat remember repeat. I still screw up, but I attempt to make right.

Passenger was started as a very small, simple, feet-on-the-street service in Detroit – If someone is on tour or traveling, they can call or email us and we will flesh out times with them to make sure they have options. If they have time for a meeting between soundcheck and stage, we’ll get them to a meeting. If their time is limited, we have a clean green room that’s just coffee, internet, peace and quiet.

For the last year, we’ve worked on The Compass – a metropolitan meeting-finder that will be updated through user interaction and central offices. We hope to make it like a Waze for people in recovery on the road. Efficient and current. Simple.

passenger AA pic

Passenger’s Compass tool is a GPS-enabled app that offers directions and info for travellers to multiple types of meetings including AA/NA, buddhist recovery (Refuge), and mental health (NAMI).

Our campaign was put together with artists and musicians alike, both in and out of recovery. Our hope is to present a united front where artists from all walks of life can stand together to support those who have recognized issues or concerns in their own lives. We ask anyone who’d like to help to visit the campaign page and see how they can contribute:

https://www.patronicity.com/project/passenger__compass#!/

Help us provide resources for travellers and touring musicians struggling with mental health & addiction issues.

About the author of this post

Christopher TaitChristopher Tait has written and performed for Electric Six since 2002. When off tour, he’s at Brighton Center for Recovery (a treatment center outside of Detroit, MI) working with others who are struggling with addiction issues. Before starting Passenger in 2015, Chris was a freelance curator for Beats/Apple Music in Culver City, CA