Refine Your Search

Doing a Poetry Residential at Ty Newydd in North Wales


5 Minute Read

There’s something about starting a new pursuit and passion when you’re older. It’s stimulating in a different way. I began writing poetry when I was 55 ten years ago. Partly, because it was non-commercial. I knew I’d never earn any money from it – so it could be purely words and me. Unlike the world of freelance journalism that I’d inhabited for the previous 25 years, which was getting more and more like a hamster wheel.

I sought a certain sort of freedom of literary expression for its own sake. And I found it at City Lit and City University in evening classes with all sorts of contemporary poets from Roddy Lumsden to Annie Freud to John Stammers. The latter had an invitation-only group, which I eventually was able to join and Wednesday afternoons became the highlight of my week. They still are.

Last year, I published my first pamphlet Tantric Goddess at the age of 64 on Eyewear. There was a flurry of readings including a Tantra evening at Book and Kitchen – this wonderful little independent bookshop in W11, which has now sadly shut down – with friend and writer, Monique Roffey. I read from my pamphlet and Mon read from her recent erotic novel The Tryst, then we did a Q & A afterward on tantra workshops. We loved it, there was such an easy, intimate flow to the evening.

A year later, I felt like I needed to get out of the almost comfort – despite the ruthless taking apart of each other’s poems – zone of The Group and float my poetry evolution elsewhere. I had just discovered – how had I not known – that Ty Newydd, the National Writing Centre for Wales is actually three miles away from my partner’s farmhouse. I saw they had a masterclass – surely mistress class by now – with the former national poet of Wales, Gillian Clarke, at 81, a grande dame of the art and Robert Minhinnick, another revered Welsh poet and eco-activist. We had to send off poems and be invited. Phew, I got in. Apparently, they chose 16 out of 30 applicants.

The week before I was feeling a little anxious. How would my London/Yorkshire attitude go down? I also knew I wanted to be committed to this course. No staying up late with other poets, I was going to be devoted to the workshop itself.

I drove into the village of Llanystumdwy, along the river Dwyfor and found the long driveway to Ty Newydd. It is a grand old house – where the former Prime Minister, David Lloyd George had lived – and painted in white and blue with a long, narrow library designed by marvelous architect and eccentric Clough Williams-Ellis, the man responsible for the wonderland of ‘fallen buildings’ that is Portmeirion down the road.

My room, well, our room – I’d yet to meet my roommate – was right at the top of the house. Oh, yes, the long-forgotten joys of the single bed. Eventually Thirza – I learned later that this was a self-appropriated name – turned up and so began our week of negotiating this space. Actually, she was very well-behaved, although definitely a late night poet. On the last night, she outdid herself and didn’t get to bed until 3:30am.

 

I managed to resist. I told you I was going to be a good girl. At last. Thirza, who is older than me, obviously wasn’t rebellious enough in her youth and middling years! She was lovely, by the way, kind, supportive and didn’t complain about my snoring.

The first night was meeting each other and eating delicious food, a good portent for the week. We also got to interview each other in the library and then introduce the group to our partner. An exercise in listening and remembering. And absolutely no run of the mill – where do you come from type questions – for Thirza. She recounted her love of gardening, Italian and her strange obsession with the dishwasher.

The next morning –the workshop ran from Monday afternoon to Saturday morning, which seemed short but turned out to be intense – we started for real. With Robert. Who is an elegiac poet of distinction but in person quite dramatic and direct. And funny. Oh, I have to say there was only one other person on the course from London. This was heaven in so many ways. There were poets from up north and many from Wales. There was that song with us all the time.

Robert had brought an envelope of abstract nouns that he’d prepared earlier. We got one each, looked it and started writing with his prompts. Unlocking the muse suggestions. What does this word taste like? Where is it? What does it feel like? I got jealousy – a shameful feeling with which I am very familiar. We wrote for 15 minutes and then read out to each other what we’d written. The first public declarations. The others had to guess what our word was. Well, they got that mine wasn’t pleasant. One of my lines was – ‘You are a twisted priest’. Robert liked that. Other abstract nouns were dread, fear, joy, wonder, mystery and we began to form an impression of each other as poets.

It was fun. The afternoon was with both tutors and eight of us brought along poems without our names on them. We handed them out and critiqued them publicly. And then wrote little advisory or appreciative notes on them. The first one was called Goldfinches and very accomplished – about the First World War and vividly expressed. I’d put one in called Identity, which was about race, my son and partly about Grenfell. Funnily enough, it hadn’t gone down well with my group in London but it did go down well in this group. I got a lot of positive feedback and some questions. One was about my usage of bastard mango, ie was it gratuitous or actually the name of a mango. It was, I’m glad to say, the actual name of a mango. I found it very useful although the shape of the table meant that we couldn’t really have flowing conversations. And 16 turned out to be a challenging number of people for optimum inclusion.

Later on, we divided into much smaller groups of four to look at each other’s poems. Ones that we’d brought with us. My group retired to that fabulous library with the view over to Cardigan Bay and we were serious about our endeavor.

Incidentally, ‘serious’ is one of Gillian’s favourite words and now at the ripe old of 65, I can finally appreciate it. And sink into it.

We were Alison Lock – a poet and short story writer from Huddersfield, Julia Usman – a poet from Swaledale who travels to Dubai a lot to visit her husband, and Trish Reith – a poet who lives in Biggar, Scotland. It was delightful to find four women who liked talking about poems and poetry as much as I do. There were occasions when we almost had a chat but Trish kept us in line. Poetry, first.

The reason we liked our fours – the others in the group agreed – was that we could share equally. We spent an hour each day with our four poems. Someone would read one, the others would comment, then the poet in question would respond to the comments. We all found it incredibly instructive. And we discussed questions like – how do we bring political events into poetry. Make them personal in some way, I think we agreed.

Later in the week, we dubbed ourselves The Crones. Part of AoA’s vision is to reclaim words like crone and old, in order to make us feel more relaxed about ageing and less in the eternal pursuit of youth. I could immediately see a Crone Tour on the cards.

And it was Halloween while we were there. In fact, Trish had a poem called Mission Time, which was about the original pagan festival, Samhain. And it just so happened that the Crones were the cooking crew that night ie we chopped vegetables for the Lobscouse, a tasty stew that I’d never heard of but apparently fed to sailors in Northern Europe for years – so we performed Mission Time as Crone-witches. It seemed to go down a storm. As did the Lobscouse and the wine.

There were readings in the library in the evenings – initially Gillian and Robert. Gillian read a few from her vast selection, while Robert tried a new long poem about his mother on us. He’s written about his mother before – she’s diagnosed as schizophrenic – but not a suite of poems like this, they will be set to music, they was a triumph. On Wednesday, we were treated to the poems and personal stories of Kim Moore whose collection The Art of Falling has won prizes and many plaudits, there’s a moving 17 poem sequence in it where she describes an abusive relationship she was in. ‘And in that year, my body was a pillar of smoke’. From Barrow, she’s got a new collection that features poems about sexism as she’s also doing a PHD on the subject. She read a couple of poems from this new collection All The Men I Never Married – they are lyrical, incisive, brave.

The week unfolded and I found I enjoyed the workshop mornings where Gillian or Robert would offer poem prompts – like think of an object which has a memory, where is it etc. Mine was the kitchen sink in my childhood home in Yorkshire and turned into a poem where I remember my father washing me in this very sink. It was, I said, a look back in sweetness to that time, rather than when I was a bit older and life with him was a lot more difficult. There was something about the challenge of this deadline that I relished. And their lyrical nudges. Gillian would say – make sure it includes a hallelujah line. Robert would say – make sure it’s powerful. And then there was the important advice – don’t have a summing up line at the end. I liked it when Gillian suggested we look up and over our shoulder for that last line.

On the final day, we were to assemble – Jude Brigley, Anne Phillips and Rufus Mufasa were the fine editorial team – an anthology of our work, the Secrets of Cwtch Dan Star (the cupboard under the stairs) inspired by Rufus’ intoxicating poem that combines Welsh and English.

That evening, we all did a five minute reading in the library. My roommate and I were the hosts with the hopefully entertaining and serious introductions. It was our pleasure to acknowledge this work and these poets. We had a ball. Of course, I wore one of my minor feather headdresses…

https://www.tynewydd.wales/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

AofA People: Lucy O’Brien – Writer/Academic


7 Minute Read

What is your name?

Lucy O’Brien

Age

57

Where do you live?

Harlesden, NW London

What do you do?

I’m a writer and academic. I’ve just published an updated edition of my book Madonna: Like An Icon, an in-depth portrait of Madonna, including over 70 interviews with friends, musicians, dancers, film-directors, choreographers. I wanted to get to the heart of what motivates her as a woman and an artist – the private as well as public Madonna. She has just had her 60th birthday, and now is a great time to think about her cultural impact. She deals with ageing in her own inimitable, defiant way!

I also wrote She Bop, the Definitive History of Women in Popular Music (now in three editions), and biographies of Dusty Springfield and Annie Lennox. And I teach popular music studies at the University of West London. I have some lovely, very engaged BA and MA students.

Tell us what it’s like to be your age?

Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. I’m not just saying that. I am happier now than I have ever been. For six years I was in a very stressful job, commuting three hours a day and waking up at 4am thinking about emails I hadn’t sent. Then a year ago I decided to leave, even though I didn’t have another job to go to. It felt like taking a skydive – really terrifying. I went back to full-time writing, I finished my PhD (I am now a Doctor!!!), and I updated my Madonna book.

Just when I started to feel the financial pressure as a freelancer, I started applying for teaching work. I was offered a full-time Course Leader job, but turned it down because the thought of it just made me feel stressed! Then part-time teaching came up at UWL. I love it there, and feel that finally, finally (after 30 years?) I have got that work/life balance.

What do you have now that you didn’t have at 25?

Peace of mind. Seriously. Peace of mind is not easy…I feel that I have worked for it. At 25 I was ambitious but troubled. There were so many things I wanted to achieve in life, and so many things I needed to work out. But now I have two beautiful, funny teenage children, my husband Malcolm who is also my best friend, and fulfilment as a writer. And passing my PhD viva on my birthday two weeks ago (great birthday present!) felt like the culmination of a long period of hard work and thought. 

And what about sex?

Sex gets better after menopause. I know people say that but it is absolutely true. I feel I understand what it means to be a woman. I didn’t really understand that until I was 50.

And relationships?

Relationships are more complicated and deeper, with friends and family. I have good friends that I have known for years. I’ve been married 20 years and enjoy sharing my life with Malcolm, and growing with him. In the last ten years though many friends and family members have died. A lot of friends my age, which is mad – shouldn’t we be the healthy generation? But the losses make you appreciate life SO MUCH. It’s a cliche, but life is really too short to waste time doing things that make you feel unhappy. My rule of thumb is, I will do the work I want, with people I like, as much as possible. And why not? After years of senseless government austerity I feel that too ENJOY LIFE is a political act!

How free do you feel?

Very free – because I’ve worked for it. I have spent a year meditating, thinking, writing, talking to people, going on courses, working out my finances and gradually, gradually getting to a point where I can truly be who I am. It’s about following your instinct. The American psychologist and writer Ralph Metzner calls it ‘alchemical divination’. Following your instinct at every point – even if it doesn’t make sense rationally or professionally – is the way to go.

What are you proud of?

My family – Malcom and my two kids. And my doctorate. Scholarly recognition was a huge thing for me.

What keeps you inspired?

Music, literature (I love reading memoirs), looking at the trees against the sky. My kids’ jokes. Watching them grow and get enthused and passionate about things.

When are you happiest?

Laughing with my kids. If everything is all right with them, then I’m happy. And doing my work – being caught up in writing, when the words and thoughts flow. That’s when I feel like I am truly me.

And where does your creativity go?

My creativity now goes into my writing and thinking. I appreciate that so much, because for ten years I was working mainly for money to pay the mortgage. I was working for The Man!! That kind of work is overrated. I was in management and slowly dying inside, bit by bit by bit. I knew I had to get out for my spirit (and body, frankly) to survive.

What’s your philosophy of living?

Trust, trust in yourself. And when you don’t know what you think or feel, or you’re not sure what you think or feel, don’t stress it. Don’t try too hard. Go to bed and ask for help. Just ask for help to them out there. Whoever they are. They might be God, or a guardian angel, or loved ones who have passed away, or a spiritual energy. Whoever it is, just ask. And as you fall asleep, listen. And as you wake up, listen. That’s my philosophy of living. 

And dying?

God, the big one. I don’t have a philosophy of dying, because I’m terrified of it. I have so much that I want to do and I can’t pack it all into this life! So I guess I’ll just have to do what I can, and love the people I’m with, and hope for the best.

Are you still dreaming?

Yes, all the time. I love dreaming. I love sitting and thinking and realising. No one tells you that as you get older you get amazing wisdom. Every day you understand something about the past, or a friend, or a conversation. Every day there are moments of, Oh God, yes, why didn’t I realise that before? And it keeps happening. It’s the trade-off for being less physically agile, I guess.

What was a recent outrageous action of yours?

Six months ago I went to see spoken word group The Last Poets at the British Library. They pretty much invented rap music – they have such presence and charisma. While I was standing there watching I had a vision in my head of me wearing a black Last Poets T-shirt, my hair short and blonde, talking to a crowd. At the time of the gig, my hair was in a long red bob. So I went to the merchandising stall and bought a T-shirt, and the following week I got my hair cut short and dyed bright blonde. I reminded me of my young punk self!

Then in July, I was presenting a paper in Porto University, Portugal for KISMIF, a big international music conference. On the day of my talk, I wasn’t sure what to wear. I remembered the vision, and put on my Last Poets T-shirt. I then went and addressed a theatre of over 200 people and killed it – talking about punk and DIY and feminism, and why these ideas still mattered. Afterwards, people kept coming up to me the whole day saying how inspired they were by my talk. That to me was my outrageous action because it made me feel so empowered.

  • Come and join me on October 15th for LIKE AN ICON, a night of conversation and music. I’ll be talking with writer Daryl Easlea and signing copies of my Madonna book.
  • Lo fi duo Radio Rubbish will be playing a live set ‘tackling the most ambitious Madonna pop epics with as few instruments as possible’!

7.30pm; Poetry Café, Betterton Street, London WC2H 9BX.

Tickets £6 advance from Eventbrite.co.uk (LIKE AN ICON) https://www.facebook.com/events/2252985441397250/

AofA People: Marian Matthews – Writer


1 Minute Read

WHERE DO YOU LIVE?

Blandford Forum, Dorset

AGE?

68

TELL US WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE YOUR AGE?

Exciting, free to research and write. Not having to worry about what other people think. Nothing to lose, everything to gain.

WHAT DO YOU HAVE NOW THAT YOU DIDN’T HAVE AT 25?

Wisdom, the internet, self-worth.

WHAT ABOUT SEX?

Yes, still keen. Not as important but nice.

AND RELATIONSHIPS?

Happily married to my 3rd husband. We met on the internet. I have lots of friends of both sexes. Where friendship is concerned I have always been a people personal rather than male or female being important.

HOW FREE DO YOU FEEL?

My only ties are those of love which I gladly enjoy.

WHAT ARE YOU PROUD OF?

My books, my writing, my children and grandchildren. By playing the long game I have had it all.

WHAT KEEPS YOU INSPIRED?

I am driven, at a time when I should be retired, I am seeking new knowledge and still trying to make a difference via my work.

WHEN ARE YOU HAPPIEST?

Cuddled up with my husband in bed or interacting with family.

AND WHERE DOES YOUR CREATIVITY GO?

Books, articles short stories and talking to people. I also knit and sew!

WHAT’S YOUR PHILOSOPHY OF LIVING?

Our reality is, in fact, an illusion or an interactive video game. We must play to the best of our ability. Co-operation rather than competition.”

AND DYING?

Phew…when I have finished my mission I can pass over in peace. I do not want to have to come back and do this all over again. I have past life memories, I know this is just one life of many.”

ARE YOU STILL DREAMING?

Absolutely…I would like to get my message across to a wider audience. A bit of fame and fortune would be nice.

WHAT WAS A RECENT OUTRAGEOUS ACTION OF YOURS?

Do you know, I cannot think. I always used to manage a bit of outrageous behaviour, but I have not done so lately. (I expect knitting and wearing wild jumpers does not count?) Thank you for reminding me what I have to do!

Me, Myself and Lyme


1 Minute Read

Earlier this year I launched my second novel, Anatomised, which explores the impact of Lyme disease. There’d been a nine-year hiatus since the publication of my debut novel: A Portrait of the Arsonist as a Young Man. Convention says the second book can be harder to write than the first as the author sometimes hits a creative brick wall, so a time-lapse between the two isn’t unusual. A decade, however, can start to look more like retirement than a creative break.

Anatomised was definitely much harder to write than my first book, though my problem wasn’t in the fresh-ideas department. On the contrary, I was brimming with material and raring to go – until I was bitten by a tick and everything in my life unravelled. I found myself trapped in a black-windowed, monolithic building on the corner of Survival Street at the intersection of Life and Death. The terrifying symptoms of Lyme disease were initially mistaken for many other life-changing conditions, misdiagnosed as two strokes, a possible brain tumour and multiple sclerosis. Meanwhile, the raging infection was undiagnosed and untreated. It was therefore given time to take hold, spread, cross my blood-brain barrier and even destroy parts of my brain. As my own lights dimmed, the devastation of Lyme disease lit up the MRI scanner.

Within months I lost my livelihood (fiction mentor and creative writing tutor at two universities). I lost the ability to walk, to stand, to read, to write, to even think straight. There seemed little hope of me writing anything more than my own obituary. I was forty-four, had been riding the crest of a wave, and then I was sucked under, lost to a freakish riptide.

As a novelist and historian, I’m often asked about autofiction; the place where autobiography and imagination overlap. Anatomised is fiction, but it has facts at its heart. It tells the story of a middle-aged couple whose lives are turned upside-down by a mysterious illness that threatens to crush their dreams. It explores dark subject matter, but the main protagonist is a stand-up comedian so there are lots of lighter moments as it moves between harrowing, humorous and heart-breaking.

Just before I got sick, I was poised to write a romantic tragi-comedy set on an idyllic holiday island. It was to be pure, if dark, escapism; a beach read; a philosophical “Mama Mia”; a masterpiece. In my wildest dreams it would top the Times bestseller list, be optioned, turned into an award-winning film, a standout musical, a Chekhovian play, a Netflix TV series, and I would make a fortune that King Midas would be proud of! But soon after my long brush with death, after discovering the huge and rapidly growing numbers of patients experiencing Lyme disease around the world (a majority of whom had no voice), I parked the rom-com, re-set my moral compass, shifted my creative focus, and prepared to set off in a new direction. But first I had to get better.

It took over two years to be diagnosed and treated for Lyme, and then several more years to make a gradual, if incomplete recovery. Miraculously, I started to form coherent ideas and words. Sentences flourished, paragraphs piled up. It was as if I’d risen from a tomb, like a Lyme Lazarus, and I’d come back to the living with an important story to tell. The question was: should this tale be factual or fictional, memoir or novel?

Writing a semi-autobiographical novel allowed me to safely revisit the past; to explore exactly what went wrong, and still goes wrong for Lyme patients, from shambolic diagnostic processes to denial of treatment. Mistakes were made through ignorance, accident or inexperience, at other times through old-fashioned obstinacy and obstructionism. Sadly, similar errors and misjudgments are still being made with Lyme patients across the globe – every day. Anatomised writes some of these wrongs and wrongdoers, setting the record straight in the hope things will change for the better, because they must.

The process of reliving trauma in such detail was overwhelming and exhausting, but it also provided purpose and motivation; a reason to drag my ravaged, aging body out of bed. After a Eureka moment, when I suddenly understood how the story would end, I knew I was on the right track. Ironically, although I was reinventing the past, I never looked back.

Could I have written this story as straightforward memoir? In theory yes, in practice no. The truth is Anatomised did begin as non-fiction. I initially wrote 30,000 words as memoir but I gave up. The life I’d left on the page felt dead and flat, like the tragic two-dimensional outline of a Hiroshima Shadow left on the walls of buildings decimated by the atomic bomb. I pressed delete and wrote another 15,000 words of creative non-fiction, first from the viewpoint of my wife and then a close friend. There was life in this reawakened memoir and moving silhouettes, but still there was no depth of field. Facts remained facts, cold and cadaver-like. When I sat down to write, I sank further into the quicksand of the past, experiencing what I now believe to have been post-traumatic stress disorder. Lyme almost killed me, and now I was destroying myself all over again.

On the verge of giving up on writing (if I’m honest, on life itself), I stumbled across the names of Jack and Alice Mann that I had jotted randomly in a notebook, intended as material for a totally different story. Searching for safe emotional distance, I started to write in the third-person, viewing the rollercoaster ride from their shoulders. The fictional floodgates opened. Creative lightning lit up my sky. I wrote feverishly and unfettered for a year. My imagination muscles were flexed, my fingertips burned. Never in a million years would I wish Lyme disease on another person, yet I had to give it to Jack. I watched the comedy of the Manns’ lives unravel into tragedy as if my own survival depended on it; not so much a thinly-veiled autobiography as a heavily-draped curtain on a stage (quite fitting for a forlorn stand-up). Even though Jack and Alice were imaginary, I felt a colossal guilt and apologised to them daily in my head. I still do.

It isn’t rocket science: writing is good for a person. It is self-coaching, self-counselling, self-soothing. It is selfish in its taking from the world, like a sponge sucking water, but it is selfless too in its wringing out and pouring back. Sometimes it’s even mixing metaphors, because writing is gardening for the soul. It is weeding bad things out and planting new things in. But each writer must find their own allotment, the form and shape that best expresses their voice and vision; what they feel or think most profoundly and honestly about the world they live in. For me, fiction rather than memoir is the place I most effectively hunt down truths about what it is to be a human being. Fiction allows a writer to move ideas beyond the realm of “what happened” into the exciting realm of “what ifs”. Ostensibly, Anatomised is about Lyme disease. Arguably, it could have been written as a memoir entitled: “Me, Myself and Lyme”. In novel format, I wanted to confront Lyme, but also to escape it. I needed to surprise myself as a writer, and therefore the reader. Even though dark places exist within, behind and between the pages of Anatomised, readers aren’t absolutely sure what is real and what isn’t, and that’s how it should be. A story reflects its own truth.

All writing has the potential to be liberating. You may not write the wrongs that make the whole world sing, but the process can be psychologically curative; a meditative medicine for the mind. It can provide consolation, comfort and sometimes liberation. It’s true, you can’t cure Lyme disease or other chronic illnesses or traumas with words alone, but you can share your story. You can use what’s broken to reach out and illuminate the darkness. As Leonard Cohen wrote: “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”.

I remember the first story I had published. I’d just thrown away a perfectly successful career as a medieval historian in the pursuit of an impossible dream to become a fiction-writer. When one of my short stories won an international literary prize, my love-affair with writing fiction rather than fact took root. It began to pave the road to creative writing, lecturing posts, the publication of my debut novel, a collection of short stories, editing anthologies and interviewing famous novelists at literary events, including Nobel Laureate, Kazuo Ishiguro. I wrote that first short story under a pseudonym Cassi Hart, an anagram of “catharsis”. Fifteen years on, now in my fifties, the Muse of Catharsis has left her mark on me and on the skin of my pages, like coolness from the softest of calamine kisses. And her kiss doesn’t age.

Anatomised took four years to complete and, despite good reviews, it probably won’t appear on many shopping lists let alone a bestseller list! That’s a shame, as some of its profit will go to international Lyme charities that offer patients a lifeline. It may have been the hardest story I’ve ever had to write but the process soothed my soul, it made me wiser. It probably saved my life, and who knows…maybe it could help save others?

So, as we grow older and wiser, here’s to writing wrongs, flexing imagination muscles, soothing souls, and hunting down the truth of our lives; in fiction, in fact.

Article Copyright: A F McGuinness

Andrew McGuinness is an award-winning author. His traumatic experience of Lyme disease has formed the basis of his new novel Anatomised

Website – www.afmcguinness.com

Buy the book here.

Show me more
Surprise Me

Hear more from us

Subscribe to our newsletter