Friday, 22 April 2011

Poetry Tombola

I spent today at the 'Made in Assynt' craft fair in Lochinver, having decided that the craft of writing deserved to take a stall. I am pleased with the result, having sold plenty of books, more than I expected, with The Last Bear, my novel, being particularly popular. I also sold quite a few of my new hand-made pamphlets, called Earth Wonderings (also available from my website, here).

The most pleasing thing was that I decided to have a bit of fun by running a poetry tombola - just like a standard tombola, except that every ticket was 50p and was guaranteed to win a prize. All the prizes were poems, on cards, and tickets with round numbers won something special - a book or a pamphlet. I gradually worked out that saying to people 'I bet you've never done poetry tombola' proved almost irresistable, and those who gave it a go seemed to like their prize a lot. Maybe the problem with poetry is just that it's not random enough, and doesn't come in small enough packages. Poetry tombola players of Assynt, I salute you!

I was also offering instant poetry, but no-one took up the challenge of paying me to write a poem for them, there and then. I shall offer it again next time, just in case...

Monday, 11 April 2011


Just in time for the end of winter... Wool locally dyed the colour of asphodel flowers, by Ripplescrafts, and technical stuff - twisted rib, double moss stitch and lots of fiddly fingery bits - mastered thanks to Helen Lockhart's knitting lessons.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Seventh time lucky!

This blog post is for people who write poems. I have just had a poem accepted for publication in a magazine I've wanted to get into for a while (pause for a moment of celebration...)

I know I'm not alone in sending poems out regularly to magazines (not regularly enough, there are still heaps waiting to be shown the light of day, but I try to send some out most months). The key moment in the process is receiving those self-addressed envelopes back in the post. There's a moment of resistance when I don't want to know if the answer is yes or no and leave the envelope unopened. But of course in the end wanting to know wins, and I pull back the sticky leaf and drag out the contents. More often than not, the answer is no. The editor's not reading at the moment, the poems don't work for them, they don't fit the issue, they just don't like them quite enough. Sometimes they say which ones nearly made it in. Sometimes they say please send more.

And sometimes they say, I'm taking one (or two). Yes.

When I get poems rejected, the only thing that eases the sense that it is ME that is being rejected (which is not a nice feeling, no matter how elegant and tactful the editor's style, and there is a tremendous range of editorial rebuff, and kind rejections are really very much, very very much appreciated...) the only thing to ease the hurt is to send more poems out. I've learned this the hard way over years. Licking the wound does not work. But putting more poems out in the post does. Trying again, kicking the poetry ball back into the field, works for me.

So, when a rejection comes in, send poems out. But which poems? The same ones, to a different place? Different ones to the same place? No. I pick a magazine from the list of magazines I want to get into (every poet has to have one of those...). I don't know how I choose which one, I just use some kind of instinct of which one I want to try today. Then I try to send poems that might fit the style of the magazine (though that can be a hard call, it is hard to judge an editor's taste). It takes four times as long as I think it will to make that choice.

I use a spreadsheet to keep track of which poems have gone to which magazines and how they have fared. It helps me to judge which poems not to bother sending where and which ones might go down OK. It ensures I don't send poems out simultaneously to different magazines or repeat pitches. And, it means that I have a rationale for chucking poems out onto the compost heap.

If a poem is rejected over and over, it's usually because there's something not nice about it and eventually, like a wounded tomato, it just needs to be put somewhere it can rot down out of sight. I call that place the compost heap.

So (and thanks for reading this far, as I'm about to get to the point) how many times does a poem need to be rejected before it goes on the compost heap? I used to say 5 times. My poem 'Rahayu' was rejected four times before I sent it to Island, back in 2003. Julie Johnstone, the editor, liked it so much she asked to see more of my work and the result was that she published my first collection, letting light in. So I reckoned that a poem needs at least 5 outings before I chuck it.

But what if it gets 6 rejections? Keep trying. The poem that has just been accepted has been rejected by 6 other editors. It was its seventh try. I've always rather liked it myself. I'm glad I persisted.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Retreat from the retreat

I spent the last week at Glencanisp Lodge, running a creative retreat. I have led thirteen of these over the past 5 years, since my local community bought the house in 2005. For the first few years I did it on my own, and then a year ago I helped to form a community interest company, called Top Left Corner, to run the retreats and do other community arts projects. Last week was the last of the weeks that will be held at Glencanisp Lodge, at least for the foreseeable future.

Top Left Corner has had to fold - the costs (particularly the cost of renting the lodge) are too high and customer numbers too low to enable us to make sufficient profit on retreats to cover the basic costs of running a company (insurance, accountancy, administration, marketing etc). I have spent a year on an immensely steep learning curve, at the top of which I can see I have acquired an understanding of lots of business concepts, though I am still as ignorant as I ever was about how to 'succeed in business'.

What I do know, however, is how to run a retreat, and this last week was a delightful pleasure - a lovely one to end on. There are three phases to a good retreat week.

There's the start, which begins for me with preparation, and when the participants start to arrive I'm already tired from shopping and getting the lodge set up ready to be a retreat venue (installing a library, putting writing tables in every room etc). But as the house fills up with people, I revive. Last week it was a mixture of friends, acquaintances and unknowns. My job is to make everyone feel welcome, to help them to find their space, and to stir the pot of people until they blend into a whole. This can take a few days. This last week it seemed to happen within a few hours. It was a fairly small group (9 of us altogether) of mature artists and writers and everyone had clear reasons for being there and mostly pretty clear goals for the week. I urge everyone to identify treats they will indulge in during the week.

After the soup of creators has blended, my job is to disappear or at least not to get in anyone's way, but to be there to help the creative work to go on. I do a daily session in the morning, called a 'creative warm-up', which allows people to come and check in, get a boost in their work if they need it, check their direction, or simply spend time with the others. I offer a gentle activity, a walk or a talk, on most days. We went to Achmelvich to read Norman MacCaig poems together. We walked to Suileag bothy to discuss our creative processes.

An important part of this middle of the week is listening to my guests' ideas and urges and helping them to give themselves the treats that they deserve. I encourage people to go to the bookshop at Inverkirkaig, or to walk the river circuit and buy a pie on the way. I link them up to local artists. I point them in the direction of Fergus Stewart's ceramics studio and to Highland Stoneware in Lochinver, to Barbara Macleod's jewellery workshop or to the soap and candle shop in Drumbeg. I called Helen Lockhart to come to the lodge to sell her yarns - she filled the sofas in the living room with irresistable colour one afternoon. Agnes Dickson came to sing Gaelic songs. My partner Bill came to talk land revolution. My aim in all of this is for my guests to feel how alive this community is, and to feel that they have touched its pulse and made real, human and artistic contact with this special place.

Then there is the end. It begins before anyone starts saying 'only a day to go'. It's a subtle shift, but I always feel it. It's when I start to check if everyone is finishing what they set out to do, asking, hopefully not too pointed questions, about progress, completion. On the morning of the final day I run a session about beginnings and endings and this always helps to focus creative minds on the last push towards closure. I start to think about how to empty the fridge. I pack up my own things in my room. I have winding-up thoughts. Creative work pulses to conclusions. We share what we have done.

And then, on Saturday morning, we wake up, bundle our hangovers into our bags and go home. I empty the lodge of our presence: books, music and food. I return to the quiet solitude of the croft. I rest and reflect.

It was a wonderful week of art: paintings, textiles, words and friendships forged and strengthened. Glencanisp Lodge is a wonderful venue for creativity, and I gain a subversive pleasure from inhabiting what was once (and still sometimes is) a venue for killing (fishing and hunting) and using it for creating new and beautiful artworks. And as always, it is wonderful to be home.

On the morning after, I woke to the first skein of geese of the year, flying over, on their way north to distant summering grounds. It is, now, time to move on.