Friday, 30 August 2013

The Death of Seamus Heaney, aged 74

Saddened by the (too early) death of one of the world's greatest poets, at the age of 74. Announcement here. This is an extract from one of my favourite poems, on the Poetry Foundation's website. It's deceptively simple and as unassuming as Seamus Heaney was himself. 


Between my finger and my thumb   
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound   
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:   
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds   
Bends low, comes up twenty years away   
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills   
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft   
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.   
Just like his old man. . . . (Click here to read on)

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Tuesday Poem: Marco Polo by Ali Alizadeh

It's my day to edit the Tuesday Poem main blog page and I've chosen an Iranian poet living in Australia.  Marco Polo is the story of a journey from the Middle East to the West and how it feels to live between the two.  To read the poem click on this link.....

The poem comes from his new collection 'Ashes in the Air', published by the University of Queensland Press

Saturday, 24 August 2013

On Leading a Double Life

Writers always lead double lives - they may be present in body, but their minds are elsewhere!  But, for a couple of years now, I’ve been leading a double-double life.  There’s the writing me - working on one book, mulling another, scribbling and thinking -  while also being the family me - sociable, having friends round for a meal, having drinks in the bar, spending time with my children, playing with my grandchildren.
Home in England
But now there are two other lives as well - ever since Neil decided that he wanted to be based in Italy for his sculpture (the only sensible decision!) I’ve become completely divided.  I have an Italian life and an English life and I swap between them every couple of weeks, going from Catalina to Kathleen and back again. Different languages, different clothes, different food - it’s as though I’ve become two different people and it’s proving very stressful.
Home in Italy
I have to keep going back to England because there’s research to be done for books, people I have to talk to, writers’ events at festivals and in bookshops.  So much of my writers’ life is in England.  And then there’s the garden to salvage and a house to keep intact.  In Italy I'm without most of my reference books, my cds, bits and pieces of personal stuff I sometimes need.  Whatever I want always seems to be in the other country!

English Kathleen
In Italy I miss my children and grandchildren, English friends, my cat Heathcliff; in England I miss the sunshine and the Italian way of life - all the friends I’ve met here - and most of all Neil, who has taken root in the marble mountains. In England I slot back into familiar routines, know how things work - how to get about. In Italy I’m always an alien, stumbling over verbs and unfamiliar phrases, getting things wrong because I don’t know enough.  Living in another country is tough! And how do you deal with that strange sense of belonging - what the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh called ‘the Great Hunger’ - feeling rooted, part of the history of a place, getting your identity from it.  Perhaps I’m just doomed to be a nomad!
Italian Catalina
I love my eccentric English home and I love my little rented house in the olive grove.  Which to choose?  I suppose the crunch will come next year when our 3 year tenancy is up.  In the meantime, I’ll just carry on commuting between one life and another. 

Monday, 19 August 2013

Tuesday Poem: Afghan women's poetry

Copyright Seamus Murphy, Poetry Foundation
Some of you will know that I spent almost a decade living in the middle east, where I began to learn about - and love - arabic poetry, particularly the poems of Mahmoud Darwish, and discovered a whole tradition of poetry and literature that we rarely ever hear of in the west.  I also found, among the turbulent politics, that poetry was often used to encode subversive political views. Just as western europe - pre-emancipation - women don't have a public voice in the middle east, they are supposed to remain invisible and silent.  But in many countries, Egypt, Iran and Afghanistan, women are writing poetry that expresses their feelings about repression and injustice.  In Afghanistan, the 'Landay' has become a vehicle for subversive thoughts - like these two:

You sold me to an old man, father.
May God destroy your home, I was your daughter.
Making love to an old man
is like fucking a shriveled cornstalk blackened by mold.
The next is a Landay by Rahila Muska a teenage girl who lived in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. She wrote poetry in secret until she was discovered.  Then, her situation became so impossible she set herself on fire.

I call. You’re stone.
One day you’ll look and find I’m gone.

These were translated by, and are copyright to, Eliza Griswold, who has just written a fine article for the Poetry Foundation on the subject of  Landays and Afghan women.  She explains that . .

 'Landays began among nomads and farmers. They were shared around a fire, sung after a day in the fields or at a wedding. More than three decades of war has diluted a culture, as well as displaced millions of people who can’t return safely to their villages. Conflict has also contributed to globalization. Now people share landays virtually via the internet, Facebook, text messages, and the radio. It’s not only the subject matter that makes them risqué. Landays are mostly sung, and singing is linked to licentiousness in the Afghan consciousness. Women singers are viewed as prostitutes. Women get around this by singing in secret — in front of only close family or, say, a harmless-looking foreign woman. Usually in a village or a family one woman is more skilled at singing landays than others, yet men have no idea who she is. Much of an Afghan woman’s life involves a cloak-and-dagger dance around honor — a gap between who she seems to be and who she is.'

If you would like to read more and see the fabulous photographs of Seamus Murphy, this is the link.

Eliza Griswold, a Guggenheim fellow, is the author of a collection of poems, Wideawake Field (2007) and a non-fiction book, The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault-line between Christianity and Islam (2010), which was awarded the Anthony J. Lukas Prize in non-fiction. Both books are published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. She has had the pleasure to work with Seamus Murphy in Africa and Asia for more than a decade. She lives in New York City.

Seamus Murphy began photographing Afghanistan in 1994, leading to the book A Darkness Visible: Afghanistan (Saqi Books, 2008), a focus on the Afghan people through the turbulent years 1994–2007. His film of those experiences was nominated for a 2012 Emmy Award and received the 2012 Liberty in Media Prize. Murphy undertook three trips to Syria in 2012. His multimedia film Syrian Spring was nominated for a Prix Bayeux-Calvados for War Reporting. “Photography is part history, part magic,” says Murphy.

All Copyright The Poetry Foundation 2013

For more Tuesday Poems, please visit the Tuesday Poem Hub, and check out what everyone else is posting.  There's a rich mix of poetry from around the world. This week the featured poem is by Rachel O'Neill.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Leaving the Midnight Cactus

I'm finally back in Italy after a very hectic couple of weeks visiting children, grandchildren, doing interviews for the book, and trying to straighten things out at the mill.  The garden looked more like a field - 

Not surprising with all the rain that they've had in the north.  And the river was rolling merrily along, full and brown and lively and very un-summery.  From the amount of mud on the cobbles and the grass, it has recently been flooded up to the front doorstep.

Between strimming the grass and dashing off to do the last interviews for the Norman Nicholson biography I haven't had much time for the internet.  Most of that has been mopped up by the first interactive Life-Writing Workshop put on by the Edinburgh E-book Festival.  I've got a group of very enthusiastic and talented writers reading the workshops and doing the exercises and I'm pledged to supply feedback online after every one.  It's been great fun and some beautiful stories have emerged. 

While I've been at home, I've been watching the progress of my midnight cactus.  It had bloomed six times while I was away, which grieved me a lot, since it flowers only occasionally and is really spectacular when it does. I sadly threw away the withered stalks.  Then, I noticed that two other buds were forming, but I was pessimistic about the chances of my still being there when they opened.  But, at 11.30pm on my last night, they magically bloomed.  This is what they looked like the following morning:

They are several inches across, tinged with lavender and smell of vanilla.  Utterly beautiful.  But in the morning I had to pick up my suitcase and leave.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

The Edinburgh E-book Festival - Creative Writing - It's Virtual and it's Free!

Monday 12th of August is the beginning of an experiment!  We're running the first interactive creative writing course from the Edinburgh E-book Festival website.  The E-book Festival is the brain-child of Cally Phillips, designed to run alongside the Other Festival. The E-festival is FREE, fully accessible because it's delivered via the computer, and has some very interesting events.  There are crime writers, novelists and poets writing about what they do and sharing some trade secrets;  there are book give-aways from a virtual Goody Bag and lots of other things! 

I volunteered to run the Life-writing course as part of the festival because it sounded a really fun thing to do and I'm interested in developing on-line courses.  I used to tutor the Open University's on-line creative writing modules and I realised that there's a need for people to have access to courses that aren't geographically based and that are affordable.  You can't get more affordable than FREE!  I've called the course 'Other People's Lives' and it's a taster.  There are 7 workshops on different aspects of using life experience to create non-fiction, fiction, or poetry, and lots of handouts and materials.  I'm also giving away a free book - an anthology of prose and poetry that includes short fiction, memoir, biography and an essay on the 'Invisible Boundaries' between non-fiction and fiction.  Anyone can download the materials, but the first 12 people to sign up can submit the exercises and get feedback.

If you're interested, or know anyone who is, the link is Edinburgh E-book Festival and the Life-writing course will appear like magic on the toolbar at 4pm tomorrow.   The Goody Bag is open for everyone - so if you fancy some free reading matter, pop your virtual hand in and see what's there!

PS - the Anthology includes the first glimpse of the Norman Nicholson biography I'm working on and an excerpt from a new novel, The Centauress,  which should see the light of day in September.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

A Family Visit

It's summer holiday time, and I'm in England visiting my children and grandchildren.  The weather is the usual English summer mix of grey cloud, rain and occasional sun.  But this doesn't deter us from pretending it's the Medterranean and stubbornly doing everything outdoors!  

This is a traditional English afternoon tea, served in a borrowed gazebo in someone's backgarden, for a 'baby shower' party.   And this is the lucky girl opening her presents!

The only person missing is Papa, who is still in Cuba because the British immigration service have refused his application for a family visit visa.  They don't have to give reasons, but we suspect they worry that he might 'overstay' (why would anyone want to go back to Cuba after sampling the delights of the UK?).  There is also no appeal procedure.  So we have to put in another application, which will take months . . . .   It's so unfair.  If they're so worried about people overstaying, why can't they just police the visas?  Grrrrr.........

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Tuesday Poem: Nightlines

My children and my children's children
are all sleeping under the same roof,
our bloodlines echoing through the dream-
time of this quiet, midnight house. The
cat curled in the hallway. Myself, a
foetal comma in a borrowed bed
too small for a guest.  Somewhere a train
rattles through the night, a siren wails
someone's misfortune, a restless child
talks in his sleep, and somewhere else
a parent wakes, and slides carefully
out of bed to listen at the door.

© Kathleen Jones 2013

I'm currently in England traveling to visit my children and grandchildren, in crowded, lively households quite unlike the quiet existence I'm used to now.   They live in cities and dormitory towns, while I'm a country mouse. Here, even in the middle of the night, there's traffic and, instead of the cries of foxes and owls, small children toss and turn in their beds. Once upon a time I, too, lived in a city, with a houseful of young children.  It seems a long way away now.

The Tuesday Poem  hub poem today is 'Where' by Paula Morris, a poem about belonging and traveling - and it's one I relate to very strongly.  My life is nomadic, and the concept of 'belonging' is one I give a lot of thought to.  Oddly, the Singing Over the Bones group has also posted a video about belonging.  Where I come from in the Lake District, sheep are 'hefted' onto a certain piece of land, unfenced and free to roam - they stay put and that sense of territory is passed on to their lambs.  People too, are 'hefted'.  We need roots, though in my case, they've become very elastic!

Where, by Paula Morris

Where are you from, I ask the waiter.
He is from Brazil, Poland, Florence.
Sometimes he is from Mexico, and I
say: so is my nephew’s fiancée.

In Auckland the taxi driver who lives in
Henderson is from Afghanistan. There are
forty of them there, he says. They love it, but
they have to make their own bread.. . . . .   Read More 

 Hefted - 

Hefted from Dreamtime Film on Vimeo.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Finished - but not finished!

Draft Cover Design
You may have noticed I've been a bit quiet recently - that's because I've been working like a demon to meet deadlines.  But, yesterday afternoon I finished the final paragraphs of the biography I've been working on for 2 years, with a great big sigh of relief.  Everyone knows that biographies don't usually have happy endings - the hero/ine always dies, but its nice to get the deathbed scene over and done with and be able to give the reader an ending that's not too final - creating the sense of something going forward rather than coming to an abrupt stop!

It isn't the end for me, of course - I'm only a third of the way through.  One third of a biography is the research - libraries and archives, books, talking to people - the detective aspect of it.  One third is the actual writing - shaping the narrative onto the page - making a story out of a life.  And the final third is the editing and re-writing, the endless letters asking for permission to quote things,sourcing illustrations, and creating bibliographies and indexes.  I still have a couple of people to talk to, but anything new that turns up now can be slotted into its place in the book without too much juggling.

So, now I'm free to clean my house - which has the kind of dust you only see in horror movies - and reply to about 2,000 emails (I kid you not!) which are languishing in my mail box.  My family might actually get to see something of me too - if they still recognise my face!  and I might manage to blog occasionally as well.

From August 12th I'm running a free life-writing course online at the Edinburgh E-book Festival.  Every afternoon there will be a workshop, with helpful handouts and information on turning your own life, or someone else's, into literature.  There are free books too.  I've created a 'sampler' of lifewriting, fiction, poetry and non-fiction, which is free to download, called 'Other People's Lives' - and there are free books from other authors taking part too.

Anyone can participate in the workshops - the materials and tuition are FREE - but only the first 12 to register online will get feedback from me.

If you, or anyone you know, would like to take part, email us on