Friday, 18 June 2010

From Pain to Paint to Poetry: Pascale Petit

I looked forward to Pascale Petit's launch of her new collection 'What the Water Gave Me' so much that I thought I may be disappointed, but in fact it was even more stunning than expected. There was standing room only in the unusual venue - a basement in the converted Horse Hospital near Russell Square.

Audience members were shoulder-to-shoulder, leaning close to hear each other in an excited buzz of conversation before and after the performance, but when Pascale read the silence was filled with the thrill her poems inspire. Each of the poems in this collection is inspired by a piece of art by Frida Kahlo, and Pascale describes this artist as having turned pain into paint.

Pascale has taken this one step further and turned pain into paint and then into poetry. The poems are in the voice of Kahlo, and some give voice to the paintings, while some are 'parallels' as Pascale called them. It's not a simple task writing a poem based on a painting as most poets have discovered at one time or another. And yet somehow Pascale has found a muse in Frida Kahlo and writes poems that come from one work of art to create another.

Kahlo's paintings have a visceral effect on those who are most taken by her work, and Pascale's poetry also inspires this response in a reader or listener. I've heard some people tell me they 'just don't get it', but if you do respond to Pascale's poetry it's electrifying. When I discovered Pascale's poetry through her collection 'The Zoo Father' I knew I had found a poet who could create a passionate response in me, as Roddy Lumsden has recently described the effect some writing can have on us.

The amazing thing about 'The Zoo Father' was that every poem had that effect. Sometimes a moment here or there in a poem can 'give us that whoosh' as Andrew Motion puts it. If a couple of poems in a collection can do that then I'm pleased to have read it. But with 'The Zoo Father' this happens in poem after poem. That kind of consistency isn't often achieved, and shows poetry that's on another level.

I did wonder if 'The Zoo Father' was so exceptional that it wouldn't be repeated, but 'What the Water Gave Me' proves that the consistency isn't just from poem to poem, but also from collection to collection. It was a special treat for the audience in The Horse Hospital to hear Pascale read some of these poems, accompanied with a visual display of the Kahlo paintings.

I do wonder sometimes if I should tone down my admiration for Pascale's work, but, having thought about it, I decided to write this blog to say how wonderful it is now to have women poets who can inspire us with this standard of writing. When I was starting out as an aspiring writer in my teens it was very different. There seemed to be so few women poets in anthologies, nobody as a role model because Plath had writing of a high quality but wasn't somebody I wanted to emulate. Plath was the only recent woman writer I saw in books, and even she wasn't alive by the time I was reading anthologies.

There were plenty of women poets in Victorian times and into the early part of the Twentieth Century, so it's not true when some people say there were 'few women poets pre 1960s or 70s'. For some reason we seem to have stifled them just at the time I was looking for women writers as inspiration, and I won't go into the reasons for it in this blog.

Perhaps Pascale Petit is the most inspirational for me, and perhaps for others it's one of the other excellent women poets we have at the moment, which isn't to say men can't or don't enjoy their work! But I don't think men might understand what it was like for some of us as teenagers to be writing poetry and sensing an absence of women in poetry.

Frida Kahlo has given inspiration to Pascale Petit, and in her turn Pascale passes that inspiration on to many more of us. We're so lucky now to have such an active circuit of poetry readings and open mics, which also wasn't the case when I was starting out. Pascale teaches poetry workshops in the Tate, and other well-known poets also give workshops. So we can meet these figures in a way that wasn't possible when I was younger, and I really recommend taking advantage of the opportunity.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

A Chance to Read at Open Mic Alongside Three Major Women Poets

On July 13th there’s a chance to read at open mic after three of our best-loved and strongest women poets: Elaine Feinstein, Mimi Khalvati and Fiona Sampson. The atmosphere in the room at our Lumen venue is sure to be electric, so try not to miss this one. With such a wonderful event it’s sure to bring together all the regulars plus plenty of newcomers, so the poetry will mix with a chance to socialise over wine and soft drinks with friends old and new.

If you’re new to the Camden and Lumen Poetry Series then the format is that booked poets are invited to read in the first and second half, with an interval for wine, soft drinks and chat in the middle. Poets from the floor are called up by our organiser, the poet Ruth O’Callaghan, so if you’d like to read then bring along one poem of up to 40 lines. When you come in you’ll be able to put your name on a list to be called, and if you leave a copy of the poem with your contact details it will be sent to the editor of next year’s anthology for consideration. All proceeds from entrance, drinks table, and book sales (the books have been generously donated by publishers) go to support the Cold Weather Shelters for the homeless.

What a wonderful line-up there is for this event from 6.30 – 9pm at Lumen, 88 Tavistock Place, within walking distance of Russell Square, St Pancras and Euston stations. Full details are on the Events page on and you can also find the Camden and Lumen group on Facebook to be kept up-to-date on the twice-monthly events.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

The Birth of a Publishing Company 4: The Authors

The contracts have been sent out and arrived back signed this week so I can talk about the first three authors on the Ward Wood Publishing list. I'm thrilled by the thought of these books appearing in September, October and November this year as they're all so strong.

If you're reading my posts to find out how to start your own publishing company and want to know how to arrange a contract then you'll find the Society of Authors offers model contracts. We were lucky enough to be able to base a contract on the one Mike Fortune-Wood already uses for Cinnamon Press.

If you want some ideas about how authors are chosen then the selection of these authors should give some tips. While the company is getting established I did need to select authors who were previously published and had the kind of skills needed to help us promote. As time goes on this will help me to reach further out to discover and encourage new talent.

The first book due out in September is by the author Sue Guiney, an American who lives in London. Her novel is called A Clash of Innocents and is set in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. It's narrated by a strong American woman who left the US thirty years before and is running an orphanage together with the Cambodian girl she has adopted. I won't ruin the plot, but this completely believable character gradually reveals why she left the US and why she's so distrustful of the volunteers who arrive and may damage the children she is determined to protect.

How did I select Sue? I had come across Sue online and noticed that she was always among the most active when Facebook and blogs were being used to resolve problems in publishing. With publishers closing down during the recession she was there taking part in trying to find ways for authors to move forward. She arranged the get-together for authors who had been left isolated by the demise of Bluechrome, and I also heard her read at the Camden and Lumen Poetry Series one day. She felt like a good person to approach with my ideas about a new company and her response made me realise it would be well received by authors. She also told me she had a new novel and asked if I'd read it. When she posted it to me I couldn't put it down - a sure sign that it was a good choice. It was also extremely well polished and ready for the editor's desk.

The second author I selected is Ann Alexander, who sent me her latest poetry collection called Too Close. Those of you reading this on the internet will be glad to know that Ann is also somebody who came into contact with me online, this time only via Facebook. I have no idea how we became Facebook 'friends' but I hardly knew Ann before the start of Ward Wood Publishing led to some talk between us and the submission of her manuscript.

Ann had also lost her publisher, Peterloo, who brought out two previous collections. I'm pleased we can help authors of this standard carry on in the knowledge each of their books has an outlet. It's so important to be able to keep writing without having to worry about finding a publisher each time, and that's why I want Ward Wood to publish fiction, nonfiction and plays as well as poetry. It gives authors a home for all of their work if they want that.

Poets who have won prizes and appeared in good magazines and broadcasts can tempt a publisher, although this isn't necessary if I see a good collection submitted. Ann has a more impressive track record than most editors could hope for. She took first prize in the Frogmore, Bedford Open, and Mslexia competitions, came 3rd in the BBC’s poem for Britain (2003) and 3rd in the Peterloo poetry competition.

Again it struck me immediately as a book I couldn't stop reading, each poem so direct and readable but with disturbing depths. It's about the everyday, based on Ann's life as an outsider who has settled in Penzance, but the troubles beneath will hit the nerves of her readers. Ann and Sue are two incredibly strong female voices who will appeal to men and women alike.

When I saw Ann's submission it was clear that time and effort had gone into perfecting the poems, choosing the right order, and making it all work as a collection. Like Sue's book, this one was more than ready for the editor's desk. If there's a hint I could give to writers who want to submit to publishers, it would be not to send your manuscript too soon. Others will be sending writing that shows how hard it has been worked on so it's vital to do the same.

Ann's book is scheduled for October, and in November we have a poetry collection coming out from Mike Horwood, a name less familiar to audiences at UK readings. This is because Mike has lived in Finland for years, and being away from the reading circuit can isolate a poet if we think of poetry as 'a small world where everybody knows each other' as I've often heard it called. In fact Mike is an excellent reader of his own work to audiences if people get the chance to catch him on one of his visits.

Mike has one previous poetry book out - a translation of the work of the Finnish poet Martti Hynynen which was published by Cinnamon Press and is called island, nameless rock. Ward Wood will be bringing out his debut collection called Midas Touch, and I'm familiar with many of these poems as his poetry drew my attention when I saw him workshopping it online. You'll have realised by now that the internet has played a large part in these first selections!

The unusual characteristic about Mike's poems is that they create an atmosphere rather than telling us about the author, or passing on a message or set of ideas. For this type of poetry to work, the atmosphere must really captivate us, and with Mike's poetry it does. The poems create a strange feeling of heightened perception, like a room or forest setting which the poet lets us see at those times when nobody is there.

What does a room feel like when nobody is around, or a clearing in woodland with only an animal in it, or nothing sentient at all? Mike puts us in that odd crystal-clear atmosphere: the narrator of these poems is there, but effaced. The effect can also be that any characters who do come into the poems seem to be separated by glass, as if true communication between people can never really be achieved.

Mike's collection was not just highly readable, but also presented in a way that will only need tweaks if tiny errors are spotted at the editing stages. The poems had each been worked on and then put into order in a way that made the whole selection chime together. Working on the correct order for a collection is one of the most enjoyable tasks for a poet, along with knowing the moment when one set of poems feels complete as a book so that we can close the cover on it and place the next poem in a new folder.

These are the first authors on our list and so much work has been going on in the background before I could name them publicly: reading a number of manuscripts, settling on these ones (which jumped out quickly as great choices), and dealing with the many other tasks a publisher needs to handle at the same time as doing the editorial work. More about those other tasks in future posts, but just one more comment is needed before I finish.

Some of you will be reading this and thinking that it seems difficult to be chosen by an editor in the face of such competition. You don't need to have previous publications or contest wins to be selected, but you do need a manuscript that works and that has been polished to the highest standard you can manage. You don't need to read at open mics, although that's one place you could be talent-spotted. You do need to be sharing your writing in some way that gets you noticed, and this can lead to you being invited to submit by editors even if their website says 'Closed to submissions for the present.'

There are also other submissions that come to an editor's desk that show potential. The authors may even have good books already published, or they may not. These potentially publishable books take longer for an editor to accept or decline. Perhaps the author has sent them too soon and it's possible they just need more work. Whatever the reason, either an editor will just decline them, as there's so much work to be done to edit, publish and promote the accepted books. Or the editor may feel like giving feedback and reading the books again once they have been worked on.

In either case it means that these books will be set aside and will be prioritised during gaps in the editor's work, so it's worth writing and rewriting to the highest standard you can. That's the best tip I can give, along with sending them off at some point and not making the mistake another friend of mine makes because she's too much of a perfectionist!
Web Statistics