In which I use technology to talk about the joys of being cut off from technology (and what it can do for your writing)

Last week I was lucky enough to go with Mouthy Poets on their annual Arvon course at Totleigh Barton in Devon. It was basically a boot camp for the imagination — we were warned in advance that the cottage has no wifi or phone signal. What it does have is a well-stocked library, an equally well-stocked kitchen (because cake and biscuits are essential to the writing process, duh), nice squishy sofas to write from and snug rooms to sleep in. It wasn’t a holiday though — all the tools are there for you to allow you time to really push your craft and, from talking to others on the course, it was great hearing the thought processes and little triumphs of other writers on the course.

Hopefully I’ll share some of the poems from the course on here soon 🙂

Our tutors:

RA Villanueva (caesura.nuwas scheduled to tutor us on this course, but his baby son arrived the week before over in America so at the last minute…

Roger Robinson (rogerrobinsononline.com) a Trinidad born, British  based writer and musician stepped in. This was a real bonus firstly because I got to discover the work of another great writer, but also because Roger’s straight talking advice is right on the money. He reminded us all that we need to be reading reading reading all the time, figuring out what we love about a poem and also what we can learn from the ones we don’t love. Just as importantly, we need to be getting our work out on the internet and performing it. Roger’s words reminded me to really reprioritise life towards the things I care about and a week with the absence of Facebook and the presence of a poetry library really kick-started that for me. Roger is working on a new and selected works and he had us in stitches with tales of his youth in Trinidad.

It would be really easy to hate someone who had their first poetry collection published at 15, especially since the poems are actually good, but Caroline Bird (carolinebird.co.ukis lovely and her anarchic sense of humour comes through in both her poetry and her teaching style. Caroline was fond of getting us to write about the really deep, dark topics we would never usually touch — and it’s surprisingly easy to go really, really deep when you’re writing about it in a playful way! — and then ‘persuading’ us to read what we’d written to the group. Caroline’s workshops helped me to see that, especially if you’re writing about something personal, you’ll often make a more interesting poem if you approach it in a kind of sideways, playful way. It’s a bit weird being taught by someone whose poems you’ve read in an actual real-life book (at uni it happened the other way around) but Caroline was really encouraging to all of us as well as being an insightful editor of early drafts.

And our special guest, for one night only…

Jess Thom, aka Touretteshero (touretteshero.com)

Enthusiastic people make you enthusiastic about things. Playworker, artist, performer and superhero Jess decided a few years ago to use the ‘word-generating machine’ which her tourette’s tics supplied her with for the greater good of humanity and started her website and blog with the mission to change the world one tic at a time.

Jess has faced overwhelmingly positive and ridiculously negative experiences because of her disability, and she shared some of these with us on Wednesday night, as well as a little segment of her show Backstage in Biscuit Land. Jess was engaging and funny, and her performance was just the tonic for the end of a busy day writing and cooking. I also learned a whole bunch of things about Tourette’s syndrome, without it feeling like a lesson, so I’ll share a couple with you now:

  1. A tic feels like a blink. Tourette’s is a neurological disorder, not a behavioural or mental health problem, so a person with Tourette’s can no more not tic than you or I can not blink or sneeze. It’s just a case of the brain telling the body to do something.
  2. It’s not x-rated. Despite the reputation, only 10% of people with Tourette’s have ‘obscene tics’. Jess is one of the 10%, but she is still more likely to tic ‘biscuits!’, ‘hedgehogs!’ or ‘I love cats!’ than a fruity four-letter word. Tics can also be movements like clapping.
  3. Tics are not what the person is thinking. Jess clarified for us that she has no strong feelings about cats and she doesn’t spend all her time thinking about biscuits. (Incidentally, I do spend most of my time thinking about biscuits, but hey, no one’s judging)

I’m reeeeeaally looking forward to Jess’s show arriving in Nottingham in March, and also (hopefully) reading a guest blog post one of the Mouthy’s may be doing for her website. It’s been a tiring week but I really feel like I’ve been pushed in my writing life, and just at a time when I needed it and I’m grateful to all the Mouthy’s, the Arvon Foundation and our lovely tutors for making it all happen.

What I’ve been reading recently

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Gut — I heard about this book when I was listening to Women’s Hour with my Mum a few months ago, because I just live a dangerous lifestyle like that. Anyway, the segment was basically this charming German medical student talking about what an interesting system the digestive organs make. My interest was piqued because I have IBS, and so anything to do with the gut is interesting to me partly in a knowledge-is-power-and-maybe-hopefully-a-cure way, but also because part of me despairs of ever finding a cure so in the mean time let’s just laugh at how funny-gross poo and farts are.

Giulia Enders is basically a more sophisticated gut evangelist than me. Her book is direct, never shying away from the accurate details or the comical aspects of her subject, but she never goes all-out crude or sensationalist either. If you’re a proper scientist, you might find it a bit too popularist, but for whimsical humanities grads like me who are only just getting interested in How Stuff Works, it’s brilliant.

What I didn’t expect: Enders sister, an illustrator, decorates the book with off-beat drawings which could have come straight from my own imagination.

Presence — I’m kind of cheating here because I haven’t actually finished this book, but it’s basically about how much more we could all get from life if we stopped writing blog posts on our phones while watching Strictly Come Dancing and were actually, you know, present in the moment. It’s written by a drama practitioner who noticed how people basically ‘switch on’ when they spoke about something they were passionate about, and also how, people hide away or force their energy into the world when they aren’t comfortable. All this talk of ‘energy’ and ‘circles’ is a bit new agey for my liking but Rodenburg gives examples and anecdotal evidence which I can relate to, so that keeps me on board.

What I didn’t expect: To actually enjoy a self help book. Ever.

Over land, Over sea — poems from those seeking refuge, an anthology — A variety of writers contributed to this anthology, and crowd funding meant that the printing costs were covered, so any profits will be donated to local charities helping refugees. Though an East Midlands based project, the anthology has attracted contributors based all over the UK, including some refugees and asylum seekers. The premise of the book being this, I couldn’t help but hope that more of the poems would be written by writers who have experienced displacement first hand, but then, I’m nosey and I want to hear everybody’s life stories in the medium of poetry. If anything, this collection is testament to the human imagination. The poems I’ve read so far feel neither melodramatic or idealistic –they are understated, genuine, and all the more heartbreaking because of it.

What I wasn’t expecting: Such good and varied poems, to be honest, because I think it can be difficult to write convincingly about an emotive subject. That said, these poems are about humans, basically, and humans are varied and good, so maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised.

 

Brave New World, Aldous Huxley — I read this for BooksQuad, my book club, then didn’t go to the meeting because a pub dinner with a friend who was about to fly out of the country beckoned. But good God, I was hooked. (Or should I say Good Ford?) I started to read this when I was in year 9 but I think I was basically traumatised by the bit about sex play and didn’t read any further (too close to home perhaps?) Of course now it is too close to home and that’s exactly why it is so compelling. Of course, all the characters sound like they’re from Downton Abbey, but I guess it was written in that era, so that was what sounded convincing. Yes it’s a caricature rather than a photograph of modern Europe, but caricatures are uncomfortable because they bear a likeness. Rampant consumerism? Check. Unpoliced recreational sex? Check. Reliance on drugs, and an obsession with sterility and hygiene? Check. Religion as a dirty word? Check. Aldous Huxley, how did you know?

What I didn’t expect : To be so addicted. My inner adolescent hears ‘Classic’ and thinks ‘hard work’, but for me Brave New World practically read itself.

 

Reliquaria, RA Villanueva — This is a collection of poetry by one of the writers who will be taking an Arvon course which a group of Mouthys, including me, will be going on tomorrow. I got the collection as an ebook and although I normally find poetry reading tricky on a small screen, Villanueva’s poems suck you right in —  they are complex poems, poems you really need to spend time with, and doing so is rewarding. Tiny details are zoomed in on, events captured so vividly it’s like being able to peek at someone’s memories, and just as you’re letting one image soak in, Villanueva moves onto another. These poems make me want to really study them, memorise them even.

What I wasn’t expecting: Recently,  I’ve been enjoying poetry about the every day, the recogniseable. So being plonked into the middle of poems where I’m not totally sure where I am has been invigorating.