One year on: Thank You, NHS!

Today, my husband and I are celebrating a first anniversary, of sorts. One year on from a subarachnoid haemorrhage, David continues to do well after making a remarkable recovery from a life-threatening condition.

We have much to be thankful for, not least the expertise of health professionals, and the treatment and quality of care he received from staff at all levels: from the neurosurgeon who explained the risks one Saturday at 2am, to the nurse on placement at QMC Nottingham who stayed beyond the end of her shift because she’d promised her patient she’d do what was needed.

I LOVE our NHS! Though there are those that do their damnedest to break it, the dedicated individuals that are its backbone continue to do the best they can for the patients in their care, in spite of this.

Many poems have been commissioned to mark 70 years of a healthcare system to meet the needs of everyone, free at the point of delivery, and based on clinical need, not the ability to pay. One such is Owen Sheers’ film-poem, To Provide All People; a tapestry of personal and universal experiences, historical narrative. Depicting 24 hours in a regional hospital, it is based on 70 hours of interviews with individuals: patients, health professionals and NHS workers at all levels. It is a love poem, of sorts, and available to view via BBC iPlayer until tomorrow at 9pm.

In my Ledbury blog post, I mentioned Martin Figura’s show, Doctor Zeeman’s Catastrophe Machine. I was deeply affected by the image of the couple on sitting on the steps of Great Ormond Street hospital and the doctor who told them, “I have held your daughter’s heart in my hand and it’s fine.” (Our son, born with a congenital heart condition requiring surgery at five days old and again, aged 3, is now 33). I heartily recommend this life-affirming show, if it’s touring in your area.

I’ve also experienced a deep connection with ‘NHS’ poems by poets whose work I’ve read over time:

Roy Marshall’s poems in the Traces section of his latest collection, The Great Animator (Shoestring Press), are inspired by his nursing experience in coronary care and research. Self-effacing to the last, Roy is one of the most talented writers I know. Having read the collection soon after its publication last year, I was pleased to hear Roy read some of these poems at Lowdham book festival, last month.

My pre-ordered copy of Josephine Corcoran’s What Are You After? (Nine Arches Press) arrived just in time for me to read it from cover to cover before her launch reading at the Nine Arches Press tenth birthday bash. I was particularly pleased, then, that she included ‘Love in the Time of Hospital Visits’ among the poems she chose to read on the day. To say that I identify strongly with this poem is an understatement. You can read it here on the Bookanista site.

Poet and indefatigable blogger John Foggin has around 70 years of ‘form’ with the NHS. Last year, he invited his blog readers to send him poems about hospitals and their experience of them. They make for interesting and varied reading. You’ll find them all in his How Are You Feeling? series of posts starting here.

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Re-fuelling the writer: a day trip to London

Wednesday’s day trip to London for the Royal Academy’s 250th summer exhibition put another tick on my Life’s for Living list.  It was a full-on day in city heat but I like to think that a change of scene can be a re-fuel for writing if not a battery re-charge.

On arrival at St Pancras station, I was greeted for the first time by Tracey Emin’s message of love to the rest of Europe:

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With the exhibition extending over more rooms than on my last visit, I spent over three hours taking in the eclectic mix of subjects, styles and media that typifies the RA’s summer exhibitions.  I became fascinated, too, with the ways in which others engaged, both on first response and at close quarters, with particular exhibits.

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My personal favourites included labours of love, elements of surprise, titles as messages, the power of words harnessed, classics made current, quirks and the downright funny.

I used to feel so alien, so out-of-water in London but, over time, I’ve come to terms with that feeling of anonymity I experience there, more than anywhere else I’ve ever visited.  In fact, it’s quite freeing, on occasion.  Wednesday brought conversations with strangers: on the choice of breakfast breads with a woman on the next table at Le Pain Quotidien; on the joys of new babies and breastfeeding with a young mother as we shared a bench at St Pancras station; on poetry and discovering friends-in-common with three fellow passengers on the return train journey to Market Harborough (my copy of Under the Radar magazine proved a great conversation starter).

From my TBR pile:

Since finishing Rowan Coleman’s The Summer of Impossible Things (I do like novels that that play with the concept of Time), I’ve read two poetry books: Marion McReady’s Tree Language (its recurring themes and subjects are almost a series of studies; I enjoyed these quiet but affecting poems) and S. A. Leaveley’s How to Grow Matches (there’s a range of styles and sources of inspiration in this short collection of poems towards a ‘template’ for the visible, powerful woman).  I’ve just started reading Nell Stevens’ Bleaker House: a fact-fiction fusion on how far one writer is prepared to travel in order to fail to write a novel (and become a writer in the process).

In other news:

I was mistaken in thinking that the Bridport Poetry Prize longlist was to be published last Tuesday.  Only the longlist for the Peggy Chapman-Andrews award (First Novel) has been announced online, so far.  The rest of us will have to wait until September (winners and highly commended for Poetry, Short Story and Flash Fiction, by email) or October 22nd (full competition results published online).  Oh, well…

What I’m working on, and other poems

Over the last few blog posts I haven’t made much mention of my writing, or what my living, breathing poems are getting up out there in the real world.

What I’m working on:

Last month, I completed another of Jen Campbell’s excellent online workshops: Response Poems. I like Jen’s workshop format:

  • the workshop material is emailed
  • a week to complete two tasks: comment on a published resonse poem in relation to the original poem; write a response to own choice of poem
  • a two-hour (text-only) Skype workshop session for group discussion and feedback on both tasks
  • Jen’s detailed feedback on participants’ poems, attached as Word documents

I wrote a deeply personal response to Emily Dickinson’s ‘Hope’ is the Thing with Feathers.  The first stanza of this poem has been my personal mantra over the past few months, so it was a natural choice.  It was really useful to receive some ‘distance’ critical feedback on an early, still-raw draft.

This is not the first, nor will it be the last poem mining the same seam.  My current poems-in-progress are borne out of my notebook writing over the past six months or so. They are poems of anger, fear and pain, as well as of hope and healing.  I am grateful, too, for ‘distance’ feedback on three of these poems, from Helena Nelson during her (still-open) HappenStance Press July ‘window’.

Published poems:

I have two poems in the brand new issue 21 of Under the Radar magazine, from Nine Arches Press, which arrived in Wednesday’s post:

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Forthcoming:

All a Cat Can Be, a poetry anthology in aid of New Start Cat Rescue, is forthcoming from Eithon Bridge Publications.  It includes my poem, My Cat is Sad; a line from the poem is also a caption for one of the gorgeous feature photographs.  As a cat lover (and Chief of Staff to cats Senior and Junior) , I’m doubly pleased to found a new home for an old (previously-published) poem, here.  Sadly, I can’t make the launch (distance, diary clash) but I’m looking forward to receiving my contributor copy.

In other good news:

DIVERSIFLY anthology (Fair Acre Press) has been short-listed for this year’s Rubery Book Award.

A long shot:

I’ll be scanning the Bridport Poetry Prize longlist when it’s published online, this coming Tuesday.  I’m one of thousands (no doubt) who are dearly hoping to see their name/poem amongst them…

Ledbury Poetry Festival

What a full-on week it’s been: a glorious mix of poetry, music and family. Consequently it’s Sunday evening already and I’ve only just sat down in front of my PC to write this week’s blog post.

The poetry highlight of my week was my first visit to Ledbury Poetry Festival. This has been on my wish list (recently renamed my Life’s For Living list) for some time, so I’m pleased that, at last, I’m able to put some of my poetry plans into action.

As Ledbury is a small market town, it was quick and easy to move between venues without getting lost (I found I didn’t really use the street guide I’d picked up at the festival office). The festival is extremely well-organised and executed with a warm and friendly vibe. Add to this an uneventful return road trip on well-behaved motorways, a spot of retail therapy along The Homend and an overnight stay in a thatched country cottage B & B: just the ticket!

Ledbury’s Market Theatre was the venue for Martin Figura’s Doctor Zeeman’s Catastrophe Machine, on Thursday night.

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I found Figura’s stage performance witty and moving by turns; the running slide show backdrop was equally engaging. I thoroughly recommend seeing this, if you get the chance.

My first booked event on Friday was Kim Moore’s writing workshop, Veiling the Narrative. Using exemplar poems followed by short writing exercises, we explored different techniques for telling/not telling the story: what to tell and what to hold back. I came away with a few starters.

I then hot-footed it over to Burgage Hall

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for the Eric Gregory award-winners’ readings. Some initial technical issues with Skype connections for two poets meant that the last few readings were rather rushed. Nevertheless, the hour was an interesting introduction to a range of styles and subjects from the young and promising.

Jill Abram’s Stablemates event was perhaps my favourite of the day. I really liked the format: three poets with a publisher in common; three twenty-minute ‘salons’ comprising a compere-led Q & A followed by a short reading. Kim Moore, Jonathan Edwards and Paul Henry were the Seren-published stablemates. Their responses to Jill Abram’s well-chosen questions gave an insight into their respective collections prior to their readings.

I had time between events for refreshments and to seek refuge from the heat (I wasn’t the only one in Burgage Hall fanning myself with a festival programme in an effort to cool down and combat drowsiness).

Sinead Morrissey’s reading, and conversation with Ursula Owen, was the last event on my itinerary. I had to admire Morrissey’s poise and composure as, by this stage, I was at melting point. Some memorable remarks by the poet included her conviction that all poetry is political as the act of writing is revolutionary; that we are custodians of language. I was intrigued by her envy of poets who ‘have their own language’ (she maintains she does not). Morrissey’s reading of poems from her latest collection, On Balance, elicited audible poetry murmurs from her audience.

I didn’t linger afterwards as, by then, it was 7pm and time to head for my car (and the joy of its air con.) for the drive home.

Lovely Ledbury. A much-needed break. A recharge for poetry batteries. I hope to return.

Public libraries

I came across this book at my village library, last week:

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I’d just returned How To Be Both, discovered this on the shelf and promptly took it out on loan (cue a new author crush). The short stories in this collection concern themselves with our relationships with books and their effect upon us. Between each story are anecdotes – from writers, friends and people on the street – or, rather, affirmations of the real value of public libraries at a time when this free and openly-available public resource is under threat as never before.

The testimonials in this book set me thinking about my own relationship with public libraries. I’ve been a bookworm for as long as I can remember. As a young child, I spent many a night reading by torchlight under the bed covers. Aged 8, I’d cycle to the nearest branch library just over half a mile away and spend my Saturdays getting lost in the worlds of books. During school holidays, I’d sometimes take a book into the blissful silence of the reference room and copy out whole passages, for the love of words. O’ and A’ level English Lit followed by a B. Ed degree (English Lit and History) meant I did fall out of love with reading for a while (all those holidays spent chewing my way through set books for the following term’s syllabus). Then we emigrated to South Africa and, when the new life we’d craved seemed largely unfamiliar and daunting, the town’s public library became my sanctuary.

I don’t remember when I went from borrowing books to buying books. Perhaps it began with the appearance of cheap paperbacks on supermarket shelves. Or when library stocks no longer satisfied my growing appetite for poetry. But I do know that, for years now, my buying habit has out-stripped both my reading speed (I’m a slow reader as I sub-vocalise everything) and available time for reading. Concerted efforts to quit have been short-lived. My habit is fed by my poetry social life, social media links to reviews, publishers/small presses, book vloggers, etc. My collection of poetry books remains relatively intact despite a massive cull of ‘stuff’ when we down-sized last year. The reading of poetry is a vital part of my writing process and my ongoing education. Much of what I read is published by small presses and unavailable on library loan. But I do wonder if my buying habit is, in part, consumerism by another name.

Of course, public libraries offer so much more than books. Our village library is a real community hub (and it’s one of many public libraries in the county that are now community-run and will soon be entirely self-funded). Most Thursday afternoons, I go there to knit and natter, drink tea and scoff cake (oh, the joys of retirement). I’ve very recently completed my training and induction as a library volunteer and I’ve learnt there’s so much more to do than stamping books for loan and shelving returns. Library loans are once more part of my TBR pile. Only the other day I came away with this 5-CD box set from the audio bookshelf. It’s the perfect accompaniment to a certain recent second-hand book purchase:

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Oh – and I’m also listening to BBC’s Book at Bedtime abridged version of Salley Vickers’ The Librarian, set in 1958: my birth year! It’s available on iPlayer Radio for the next month or so, here.

I’d love to read your public library testimonials via the comments box below.