How times have changed with Covid-19. With few exceptions, the last meeting of the year at City Voices would have meant a Festive Meal at lunchtime for the group, lots of laughs and maybe a speech or two nicely fuelled with alcohol. Determined not to spoil the holiday spirit, we had a Zoom get together with silly hats and antlers, a little drink (once the sun was over the yard-arm) and some festive nibbles. We managed some readings and critiques, and then I led a workshop with the prompt ‘Fear’. Imagine your character going about their morning routine, but in a state of abject fear. The catch is that you don’t say what they are scared of, and don’t actually state that they are afraid. The ultimate ‘show not tell’. It worked very well and most people absolutely met the brief, but the odd slip up doesn’t matter! That is what critique is for, to iron out glitches and think of better ways to express the same emotions e.g. body language, physical turmoil, reactions. The meeting over-ran by 30 minutes because we were all enjoying the moment.
We welcomed Mary, a newbie to the group but not to writing; she is currently working on a novel and enthusiastically joined in the critique and workshop. We assured her that alcohol, party hats and mince pies were not part of the usual City Voices set-up!
We are now having a bit of a sabbatical from City Voices (although not from writing, I’m sure) but we will be back 30th January 2021 on Zoom.
Thanks to everyone who have where possible supported City Voices Creative Writers in these unprecedented times; the stress, the heartbreak, the pressures of work, study and family. Thank you everyone for your patience and perseverance with technology. It’s been a learning curve like no other. Here’s to vacations and vaccines!
The last meeting in November 2020 saw an old face (metaphorically that is) return to City Voices after an absence of some years due to other commitments. It was great to welcome Josie Kinnersley back to our gallery of writers. It is worth noting here that there is no official collective noun for a group of writers. I have seen an ‘alliteration’ of writers as one suggestion. Also a ‘murder’, as in crows. Perhaps a parliament of writers would be good, as in rooks. In fact parliament seems very apt; a gathering of people with intelligence – yes I did say that - but some a bit flaky, or at times living in a bubble, and not good with practical detail (as a poet I own up to all three) certainly everyone having their own opinion and secretly thinking that’s the right one! Oh and re-writing everything constantly. Of course I jest, and this is NOT a political platform. My experience of writers is one of people who work very hard, not just at writing but their day-jobs, family and friendships, and helping other writers to develop. Some (not me) are also incredibly talented in other branches of the arts; I know writers who can even use both sides of their brains. (Definitely not me).
As ever at the meeting we had readings and critiques. We were all very struck with Bev’s poem about someone ‘coming down’ from a drug high. Bev assured us that this followed research, not experience. Debbi set us an exercise called ‘Hermit Crab’. Take something like a shopping list, or a paint colour chart, that is something everyday and make it into a story (or a poem). ‘Hermit Crab’ I believe originated in Flash Fiction, the name being a reference to the idea of ‘Fresh Stories from Borrowed Forms’© medium.com/the-book-mechanic/hermit-crab-fictions-fresh-stories-from-borrowed-forms-21f1048f163a
I chose the titles of chapters in a book. Everyone wrote for 20 minutes and I thought it was great fun but also very challenging. I managed 6 chapters with quick thoughts, some more original than others. Here is how I wrote at great speed about a chapter called ‘Dark Lamp’
More Harold Shipman than Florence Nightingale,
more Fred West than Kanye West,
although both like to be in control.
More darkness than any illumination of words;
the pixie grin, the hidden creature, the coward.
The Twitter troll.
Thanks Debbi and everyone who came along.
Say ‘Hello’ to Beverley, one of the touchstones of our creative writers group. Given that Bev has a full time career - I won’t say what but I might describe as a ‘creative accountant’ :) - she almost always finds time for CV Zoom, in between looking after horses, rescuing racing pigeons during a storm and her own writing. We were a small but energetic group on 7th November, and I was glad to see Bev there, as she is such an excellent and eloquent critique-er (is that even a word?) of both poetry and prose. I read one of my recent poems and everyone agreed – change or drop the last line! Which has turned out to be an excellent thing, and I’m now seriously working on that piece. Sandy tried an experimental type of ‘shaped’ poetry – the words are shaped to fit the poem. This is a very simple example here – Sandy’s was much more complex, a hunched figure and a poem about a weighted heart.
People brought their stuff to read then it was on with the real business of writing, mics and cameras off. I gave the group several prompts to choose from, and there were some excellent interpretations in particular of ‘Fire’. At our next meeting on 21st November 2020, Debbi will be running a writing workshop called ‘Hermit Crab’. Nope, me neither! So come along to find out.
(Image by kind consent of The Poetry Pharmacy, Bishops Castle)
Yes, this does have a City Voices connection, I promise you. Just before the latest Covid lockdown, and when my town and Bishops Castle (BC) were both in Tier One, I managed a weekend away in a lovely hotel in BC. Sadly most of our outdoor plans were scuppered by the weather, so with the agreement of my husband (who had to stay silent for 2 hours) I thought I might as well join the City Voices Zoom meeting. So with laptop and portable Wi-Fi at the ready – internet signal being a bit dodgy in BC – it was business as usual, readings and critiques, and a writing workshop on the theme ‘The End’.
After the meeting, I abandoned my husband and trotted off to the High Street to the fabulous and original Poetry Pharmacy. www.poetrypharmacy.co.uk
The business is owned and run by two published poets, James Sheard and Deborah Alma, and is one of the loveliest, most eccentric places I know, in a good way! To quote their website
‘We (the Poetry Pharmacy) have been dispensing poetry for over 7 years as Emergency Poet from the back of our vintage ambulance at festivals, conferences, hospitals and care settings, libraries and schools, with a poetry pharmacy of poems-in-pills under the attached awning.’
Now the same thing happens at the shop, and in normal times there is also a tea-room (highly recommended) plus live poetry events. The latter currently operates via Zoom. Prior to lockdown v.2 the shop was open for sales of poetry books, poetry ‘pills’ and lots of other little treasures to make life feel happier. All are for sale on-line too so please have a look.
It was great to see James and Deb again, albeit very socially distanced and from behind masks, have a giggle and a chat and come away with a bulging (re-usable) tote bag of books and goodies. The Poetry Pharmacy is a warm and generous space. I urge you to visit, it will make you feel good inside.
Oh, and BC is a great place, with lots to see and great walks, good pubs and yummy food. Despite the rain, it was a very welcome break.
After much tech-stuff muddling about, I am finally able to access my blogs again! Apologies for several weeks without updates, but I have tried to keep everyone posted on the Facebook page and by email. Our Zoom meetings continue as ever, and 26th September was a great success. It was lovely to welcome back Heath - looking cool with his new beard. So sorry to miss those who could not make it, but we had a productive time, did some writing and also chatted about this and that. Very interesting as always with a mix of views etc. Some shared one-syllable pieces, I shared a poem, and Paul shared a couple of pieces of poetry inspired by photos.
Heath set an interesting exercise where we had to think of a famous villain (from TV, Film, Literature etc) and bring them into a different setting completely and write about how they would act or exist in that. We came up with some diverse stuff.
At our last meeting on 11th October we followed a prompt from Debbi Voisey to write about someone (maybe ourselves) being involved in some activity or event that we were fairly sure would never actually happen. In my case wing-suit flying! (Google it – fascinating) We also managed 20 minutes writing time.
I received some sad news today in a phone call from one of our longest-standing members, Anita Oxford, to say an older member of City Voices Pauline Dallas, who has been ill for some years, has passed away. Those who remember Pauline will remember her humour, often springing from some verbal faux pas she or one of the other members had made. I clearly remember her saying she had Googled something for one of our writing prompts about being imprisoned, and had been taken to an internet site for bondage enthusiasts!
RIP Pauline, and bless you.
Today’s Zoom meeting (29th August) was extraordinary. Seven writers came together, some with last week’s brief of writing about family, one regular to listen in and critique, and newbie Harold. It turned into a very emotional gathering.
One of our fiction writers, let’s call him X, read his short story set in the trenches of WWI. It was about brotherly love and family tragedy and in reading it aloud, possibly for the first time, the author had tears in his eyes. It was incredibly moving.
One of our budding poets, let’s call him Y, was working on two poems, one for each of his teenage daughters and part of a legacy project. Towards the last line of the second poem he too was overcome with emotion and left the room for a short time.
Another writer, let’s call her Z, was in tears listening to those two poems and recalling her wonderful relationship with her late father.
There was a poem about a much-loved nephew, and a prose-poem for a super-hero mum. There was also a poem about never met half-siblings and cross-siblings, due to the secrecy of emotionally dysfunctional parents. Or maybe they were just ‘of their time’.
So why can we write about emotional issues, and read them in our head, then end up in tears when we read them aloud? Of course there are scientific explanations as to why we cry, but saying something aloud perhaps makes it more ‘real’. Being moved emotionally has been described ‘as the sudden feeling of oneness with a person or other entity’. Being empathetic towards fictional characters, memory triggers, or simply writing and speaking about someone we have loved can have this effect.
Today as ever, there was lots of positive but honest critique, but for those who feel that artistic creativity is surplus to human requirements (look at certain politicians as examples) I would say that creativity is one of the things that make us human; able to mine our own emotions and relate to others. It is cathartic, an outlet, a journey and a gift we give to others.
At our previous meeting on 1st August, which I missed due to messing around with bees, Debbi, Bev, Adam, David, Paul and new guy Antony had a great discussion and in depth look at pieces of work in progress and gave and received some great advice.
Today (15th) Debbi was otherwise engaged but happily we could still all use her Zoom link (so sorry that Jo Wright had techie problems) to read those edited pieces, and also some new work. There was an in-depth discussion and critique – poems from Chris, Bev, and Sandy, Paul’s manuscript, plus Christian’s excerpt from his latest novel. I then ran a mini-workshop, with the brief to write about a particular member of our family - living or passed, liked or hated who make us happy or exasperate us, or both! Maybe a family member never met for whatever reason, or a fantasy sibling. In lockdown there has been a lot of focus and rethinking on this subject. We wrote for just 15 minutes and everyone (except me!) came up with something. I think we all admired Sandy’s poem about her grandfather, which started on a sweet note and ended bittersweet with Sandy’s knowledge that her grandfather’s smoking habit would eventually kill him. Adam, who is now blind, wrote movingly about his father taking him on walks and talking to him about nature. Adam said it was hard to talk about his dad, who is happily still with us, and the line about words ‘swelling and clogging my mouth’ were poignant indeed. Bev wrote about her never-met great-grandmother Mabel who played piano and toured cinemas and music halls, and who had the best parties in the street. I read an older poem of mine, but vowed to have one by next time about my cross-sibling whose name I may never know.
Today we had an intimate and revealing meeting at City Voices via Zoom, organised and run by Debbi Voisey. Asking someone to bring along a piece of their favourite writing, be it poetry, fiction or non-fiction is asking people to reveal a little about themselves; as an extreme example Karadžić, the Butcher of Bosnia, wrote what was apparently well-crafted poetry (see https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/ppx7zk/dictator-poetry) but one can imagine what most of it is about i.e. war, vengeance and bloodshed.
Participants today Adam and Christian, brought along their favourite classical poems, ‘The Cloths of Heaven’ by W.B. Yeats and ‘The Tyger’ by William Blake. Neither poets nor poems need any introduction from me. Christian had written his own tribute to the latter entitled ‘Panther’
‘Was it Lady Night that draped you/in a cloak of her anti-light?’ asks Christian.
We then had a discussion about sensitivity to light, and concluded that Adam and Chris were secret vampires. They didn’t look too upset about this, TBH!
Beverley chose ‘I Am!’ a poem by the tragic 19th Century labourer-poet John Clare, who ended his days locked away in a lunatic asylum, where Clare obviously felt like he had been written out of his wife and family’s lives. He suffered from severe depression and alcohol problems. Bev wrote a poem using the analogy of a discarded Teddy Bear to convey the grief of being left behind and forgotten. This provoked a good deal of discussion about parents, family and guilt.
Debbi bucked the poetry trend and entered the world of ‘Breathless Flash Fiction’ Wow! What does that look like? Well a bit like brilliance really. Debbi read the closing paragraph of a novel ‘Watt’ by Irishman Samuel Beckett (1906 -1989) the paragraph being constructed as one long sentence which dashes through the four seasons of the year – visual and quietly humorous. Not as easy as it perhaps sounds; it's much more than writing sentences and then pulling out the punctuation like so many bad teeth, and it's NOT stream of consciousness either. Debbi then read her own Breathless FF (the prologue to her Novella in Flash) called ‘Reversing Sensor’ about a man’s life and his decline into Alzheimer’s disease.
Sandy chose the Polish poet and 1966 Nobel prize-winner Wislawa Szymborska, whose poem ‘Flagrance’ made Sandy realise that ‘Yes, poetry is for me’. Flagrance is about two lovers and the objects around them – the tea cooling in the cup, shadows on chairs, the cooking stove … when she talks of a moth fluttering over her and her lover, "I didn't see, you didn't guess, / our hearts were glowing in the night." Szymborska has been accused of sentimentalism…… https://freebeacon.com/culture/hatred-knows-how-to-make-beauty/Sandy does not agree with this argument and neither do I, because love can feel like that.
I naturally chose poetry – firstly ‘Donal Og’ or ‘Young Donal’ translated from an anonymous 8th Century Irish Poem. All I can say is that the poem is about unrequited love and lies, and what we want to believe rather than the truth. Totally 21st Century in fact. My modern take on this poem is called ‘Girl Undone’. I also looked at the rather beautifully unhinged ‘Snow’ by Louis MacNeice, another Irishman, and a poem which has been analysed many, many times. Ultimately I believe it is about the oddness of life, the exuberance of the ordinary, and maybe getting a little drunk! My own poem in this style is called ‘Banana Tree’ and was part of my portfolio ‘We Are Water’.
Another two hours that went too quickly, and a great way to spend Saturday mornings. Please join us on Zoom on 1st August 11am to 1pm.
L to R - Debbi, Bev, June, Adam, Christian, Paul (and grand-daughter), and Michaela who all came along to the last meeting.
It was great to see Michaela again - as she works in the Care Sector getting to meetings was always tricky! Last Saturday, author Debbi ran a Flash Fiction workshop with a difference. This was micro-fiction, roughly the length of a Twitter post. This is what Debbi has to say
'City Voices has been enjoying a kind of resurgence during lockdown, thanks to Zoom. I have been enjoying hosting our fortnightly Zoom session, at which about half a dozen or so members are showing up. We are hoping more will start to join us before things start getting back to normal, and everyone is welcome, even non-members.
On 4th July I hosted a workshop with CV about writing very short stories. Anyone familiar with Twitter will know that posts (or Tweets) are limited to 280 characters. Every day on Twitter, using the hashtag #vss365, people post short, tweet length stories using a daily prompt word, which has to appear in the story. Being a story, these tweets have to be a “complete” thought, with a purpose. It’s tricky, but a great challenge, and teaches brevity and gives you practise in being able to use only the most necessary words. It’s amazing how much can be conveyed in so few words.
Last year, one of my very short stories was published in the first VSS365 anthology. In response to the prompt word “contact”, I wrote:
She has to close her heart when she sees him. Their contact is electric but fleeting; eyes when his finally wander around to meet hers, hands when she’s helping him off the bed, lips if he remembers her. Soon everything will be just crackling echo-memory of love.
You can easily practise these kinds of stories by selecting random words from books or newspapers, and then challenging yourself to write stories of this length. Don’t get too hung up on counting the characters, unless you do actually post them on Twitter. Just limit yourself to 50 words, and get used to being brutal with your word cutting to only leave in what you need to get your point across. You have to see your story as a “fleeting thought” that needs to be conveyed, and a lot of it has to be done by implication rather than spelling everything out. This will become easier the more you practise. You’ll may initially think it impossible because you may reach 50 words before you even start your story properly… well, that just means you have probably written 50 words you don’t need! You will notice in my example above that we don’t know anyone’s name, what they look like, where they are. We are just interested in this connection they have and how it will soon be gone. Simple.
Have a go and we’d love to see your examples posted here in the comments.'
Thank you Debbi Voisey for setting up our Zoom meetings every two weeks. We use them to deliver workshops on poetry and fiction, and to read and critique each other’s work. The meetings have been very productive, not a minute wasted, but we do have a chat and a laugh too. This week I ran a poetry workshop where we discussed ‘Snow Joke’ by Simon Armitage.
After our discussion I asked everyone to write for twenty minutes to try and emulate the ‘storytelling’ aspect of Armitage’s poem, the changes in tone, and how despite the free verse and jokey introduction this really is a poem as opposed to prose fiction. (Although not all of the group agreed!)
Armitage once said
‘Poems that wave flags, campaign and crusade often fall flat on their arse. But I do think of my poetry as political' – can we see this in Snow Joke?
After writing and a read-around of our fledgling work, we then read and critiqued poetry by David Bayliss, one of the group. It was great to see our founder Paul Williamson join in the Zoom call; of course Zoom is not for everyone, for various reasons, but it has been great for us.
Pattie, a long-standing member of the City Voices community was also with us but had to dash off right at the end so sadly she has not made the photograph.
Until City Central Library in Hanley opens again, we will be on Zoom at 11am – 1pm every other Saturday. Our next meeting (fiction workshop) will be 4th July 2012.