Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Poetry Challenge 2013

The poetry challenge

A year ago today I was planning my poetry challenge. As a reluctant poetry reader the challenge was to read at least one poem a day, every day and to choose a new poet every week. By the end of the year I should have read at least 365 poems and 52 new poets.  One year on I can claim success and more.  I managed to read on average about four poems a day. Some weeks I did cheat and would choose to read a poet’s collection I had previously started and failed to complete, but in the course of those weeks I invariably found other poets to read somewhere along the line.  Because here is the thing, once you embark on including poetry as part of your daily life you begin to see it everywhere; in newspapers and magazines; at the beginning of books; on the internet; in the underground; on the back of cereal packets. Poetry exists everywhere we just don't notice it.

So how did I choose my poets and where did I source their collections?  When I started I knew very little about poetry, but I did know loads of poets. The first thing I did was broadcast a plea on Facebook and Twitter. The response was staggering. I began with a list long enough to keep me going for the first couple of months.  Many of these poets continued to send me suggestions throughout the year if they came across something they thought I would like.  Even with this very unscientific approach I find that the poems span many centuries and continents. I am surprised by the many Scottish poets in my list but also by the diversity.

I admit to buying a few new poetry books, both hard copy and ebook.  I found many of the poetry ebooks under £2.00 and often free. I also used WWW.Poemhunter.com, a superb source that allows you to download free poetry ebooks.

Because I lived part of 2013 in France I had to organise my library books with care but I am sorry to say the libraries only held a limited online selection.

Most of my books were second hand.  Early on in the year I visited Callander where bookshop owner, the lovely poet and publisher Sally Evans, guided me on the best and most influential poets to read. She insisted I read John Donne and I am glad she did.  ABE Books, a marketplace of online second hand bookstore was my main source.

My greatest joy was trolling the shops of Paris. There I found the elusive Edwin Muir, an old version of French Poetry with translation, a bilingual version of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Yeats and Emily Dickinson. The search was as pleasurable as the reading.

So what did I learn from this challenge?  The aim was to improve my own writing. I am not sure if this is achieved, time will tell.

I have learned that reading poetry enriches your life in unimagined ways. New worlds have been opened up to me. I have discovered a love of art, I know more about Greek Mythology, politics, oppression, nature, life and love.

The challenge may have ended but I will continue to read poetry every day. This is a daily habit I intend to keep. 

Throughout the year I have managed to read full collections but often I could only dip in and out again.  I only managed a glance at Shakespeare’s sonnets and the French collection. Milton’s Paradise Lost and Seamus Heaney’s Translation of Beowulf have been neglected.  My new challenge is to work on finishing the unfinished and immersing myself in the epics. And I can't wait.

Below is my list of readings:

Week 1 – Thomas Hardy, Poems of the past and present, full collection
Week 2 – Kathleen Jamieson, The Overhaul, full collection
Week 3 – The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, complete poem
Week 4 – Billy Collins, selection of poems from Poemhunter.com
Week 5 – Two Billies – William Letford, Bevel, full collection and William McGonagall, A Selection, full collection.
Week 6 - Sharon Olds, Stag’s Leap, full collection
Week 7 – Robert Crawford, The Tip of my Tongue, full collection
Week 8 – Mark Doty, Atlantis, full collection
Week 9 – T S Elliot, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, full collection. And Sydney Goodsir Smith, Under the Eildon Tree, full collection
Week 10 – Moya Cannon, Carrying the Songs, full collection
Week 11 – Emily Dickinson, Everyman’s Poetry Collection, full collection
Week 12 – Bernardine Evaristo, Land of Abraham, full collection
Week 13 – Rhona Fitzgerald, Oidreacht/Inheritance, full collection
Week 14 – Christopher Reid, The Song of Lunch, full poem
Week 15 – Sheila Blackhall, The Toad on the Rock’s Opinion, full collection
Week 16 – Warsen Shire, Teaching my mother how to give birth, full collection
Week 17 – Dylan Thomas, Everyman’s Poetry Collection, various selection
Week 18 – Don Patterson, Landing Light, full collection
Week 19 – August Klienzahler, The Strange Hours Travellers Keep, full collection
Week 20 – Pablo Neruda, Love – Ten Poems, full collection
Week 21 – James Robertson, Hem and Heid – ballads, sangs, saws and poems, full collection
Week 22 – Elizabeth Burns, The Gift of Light, full collection
Week 23 – WB Yeats, Everyman’s Poetry Collection, various selection
Week 24 – Charles Baudelaire, The Poems and Prose Poems of, various selection
Week 25 – Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, various selection
Week 26 –Wong Phui Nam, Way of Exile, various selection
Week 27 – Ray Bradbury, On Creativity, complete book
Week 28 – Paul Muldoon, The Poetry of, various selection
Week 29 – Marina Tsvelaeva, Bride of Ice, various selection
Week 30 – WH Auden, Tell me the truth about love
Week 31 – Chris Salt, Home Front, Front Line, full collection
Week 32 – Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken and Other Selected Poems, full collection
Week 33 – Epic of Gilgamesh, part read
Week 34 - The Poems of Wilfred Owen, full collection
Week 35 – Yardza Garcia, A Shy Girl Screams Poetry, full collection
Week 36 – Wendy Cope, If I Don’t Know, full collection
Week 37 - Edwin Muir, Selected Poems, full collection
Week 38 – Alice Walker, Horses make the landscape look more beautiful, full collection
Week 39 - Poems of the Great War 1914-1918, various poets, full collection
Week 40 – George Mackay Brown, Northern Lights, Poems and Prose, full collection
Week 41 – Maya Angelou, And Still I Rise, full collection
Week 42 – Ted Hughes, Birthday Letters, various selection
Week 43 – Tennyson, various selection
Week 44 – Theodore Roethke, selection of poems from Poemhunter.com
Week 45 – Louise Gluck, selection of poems from Poemhunter.com
Week 46 – Sai Murray, Ad-liberation, full collection
Week 47 – Kevin Cadwallender, various selection
Week 48 – John Donne, Complete works, various selection
Week 49 – Robert Louis Stevenson, Everyman’s Poetry, various selection
Week 50 – The Poetry of Jalaluddin Rumi, various selection
Week 51 – Moon in The Pines, Haiku, full collection
Week 52 – Michael Ondaatje, The Cinnamon Peeler, various

Some were great, some were good and a few were truly awful but they were all worthwhile to read.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

The curious world of Bizarro

A couple of weeks ago I read a copy of Chris Kelso’s A Message from the Slave State and experienced my first curious taste of the Bizarro genre. I thought Bizarro would make a great topic for a blog post then realised I was hopelessly under qualified for such a task so I interviewed Chris about the genre and his writing. I'm now clued up and you can be too if you step into the weird world of Bizarro with the talented Chris Kelso as your guide. 

Chris Kelso

You are the only Scottish Bizarro Writer. What is Bizarro and when did you first discover this new genre?

I’d say the most frequently used tagline the Bizarro genre has sums the whole thing up pretty well, although there is more to it. The tagline goes that: Bizarro Fiction defines itself as the literary equivalent of the cult film section in a video store. It has a definite focus on the outré but shares common tropes with science-fiction, fantasy, and horror as well as with Dadaism and surrealism. It’s a great mash-up of tastes and styles. There’s a strong influence of new Weird in there as well as horror comedy (I’d even argue that Ero Guro has been just as instrumental in shaping the Bizarro voice – it has certain preoccupations with eroticism, sexual corruption and decadence.) I discovered it myself about 7 years ago, and like most newbies to the genre, it was Carlton Mellick III that lured me in. I was going through a kind of ‘controversial novel phase’ as a teenager where I was consuming anything that people found morally reprehensible or distasteful. “Satan Burger” was popping up all over the place and causing a stir – so I bought it, read it, and before I knew any better I was spending a large chunk of my student loan on Eraserhead Press titles. I was SUCH a fanboy. I still am really. Having the chance to finally be part of that whole thing is a dream come true, and in most cases I am actually friends with the writers I grew up reading. I even wound up co-creating a magazine called Imperial Youth Review with an idol of mine, Garrett Cook. It’s been a fairy tale as far as I’m concerned.

What attracted you to the genre?

I had my period of wading through the classics of the literary canon but by the time I was at university I was crying out for something that appealed to my sensibilities and didn’t feel like homework! Don’t get me wrong, I love the classics, I also love Scottish fiction like Robin Jenkins and Alasdair Gray, but there’s a side to my personality that all that stuff doesn’t cater to. While it’s certainly aimed at a mature audience, a large proportion of the Bizarro community take their inspiration from cult movies which make it accessible and appealing to disillusioned younger readers. It aims to satisfy the demands of readers who are looking for deliberately and unashamedly weird literature. Although a lot of the writing itself is surreal and grotesque, there’s an aesthetic of self-promoting too so every author in the genre is a hard-working, stoic professional. It’s the perfect genre to induct new writers – it’s unusually welcoming for a lit-movement, but you have to work your arse off to get anywhere and stand out. I need my arse kept in check like that to stay on top of my game.

Much of your work is short fiction. What opportunities are available for publication of short fiction in this genre? 

There are always new podcasts (Christopher Boyle’s BizarroCast and Jeremy Maddox’s Surreal Grotesque shows instantly come to mind) and ezines appearing within the genre. You really couldn’t hope to be in better company as an emerging writer because people are constantly creating a new arena for you to express yourself. Everyone is very encouraging and there are ALWAYS open submissions somewhere.

At times your prose uses exquisite literary description and unique metaphor. Do you ever explore other genres to sustain this type of prose? 

I do. Bizarro is really just the “excuse” I cling to in order to communicate my horrid little stories without being stoned in the street or deemed abhorrent in the eyes of society. It’s not just my excuse, I do actively identify myself as a Bizarro writer in some capacity. But it allows me to write without restraint, urges it even. This is tremendously freeing for a writer. I’m just as influenced by literary fiction and science fiction as I am by Scottish fiction (believe it or not!) and some non-fiction. The Bizarro genre has been hugely inspirational to me but most of the actual literary devices and developments I exercise are taken from or influenced by the more recognised genres.

Who are your main writing influences and why? 

This is difficult for me. I have so many, but I’ll give you the run down on the three who have had the biggest impact on me. My main influences are….

.William Burroughs – because his prose is just stunning. It’s raw, ugly, refined and coarse in equal measure. “Naked lunch” provides, in my eyes at least, the true blueprint for what Bizarro fiction means to ME and what I think it’s all about: Writing without shackles, provoking and employing heavy use of metaphor to create fix-up novels. The pop-culture significance is also present in Burroughs work.
 .Alasdair Gray – “Lanark” is my favourite book, hands down. “1982 Janine” is a close second. He was the first Scottish writer I’d come across who didn’t come across as a stuffy auld arsehole (of course I’ve since learned that there is a rich tapestry of writers who don’t write like stuffy auld arseholes!). His writing is so accomplished and his artwork is beautiful. That’s another thing that influenced me to try and illustrate my work. The experience simply enhances twofold. I want to create a similar reading experience.
.Philip.K.Dick – Everything about his books tap into what I enjoy most about writing. He introduced to me the idea of creating worlds and analysing the shifting dimensions of our reality. His writing is always smart, efficient and funny. I’ve read most of his books, even the trashy, pulpy novels he wrote early on in his career just to generate cash. I’m missing people like Garrett Cook, Samuel Delaney, Tom Bradley and Charles Bukowski, but I’d be here for bloody ages blethering on about them…

Cartoons appear sporadically within your collections and you use a relaxed, often very funny dialogue. These two elements in your writing led me to wonder if you have ever considered branching into the growing Comic writing scene that is happening in Scotland at the moment. Have you?

I have actually! I’m currently scripting a comic at the moment called The New Animal Liberation Front. There are already some exciting people coming on board to help me out so hopefully we’ll see more from that endeavour soon. But I’m really proud of the way this country is so ingratiated in comic books. From 2000AD to Grant Morrison, there’s a strong network of top-Scots in the field. We seem to be intrinsically channelled into the whole comic book ethos, we just seem to get it over here. There are obviously great artists and writers in comics all over the world, but for a country our size it’s a phenomenal thing to witness. I’m very keen to be part of it, or at least meet some its main proponents. I met Grant Morrison a couple of years ago in Forbidden Planet and I had a lovely chat with him. Unfortunately, I tend to get all marble mouth and start sweating profusely in the company of greatness, but he was very, very cool and lovely…

You have been published both in the UK and in the US. How do the experiences compare?

I’d say the US publisher was much quicker, but both have their pitfalls and graces. I love Dog Horn (who published “Schadenfreude”), but Adam the editor is so unbelievably busy and backlogged that the book took a good while to come out – that said, I think Dog Horn is the freshest and most exciting indie publisher of alternative fiction in the UK –PERIOD- , so it was a small price to pay just to have their name attached.

And finally what advice would you give any writer wishing to break into the Bizarro genre? 

Show each other respect. All the established Bizarro writers are approachable and beautiful human beings who want to see everyone in their genre flourish and succeed. They respond to politeness and a showing of mutual respect. If you need advice they are always accommodating. Just make sure you leave the ego at the door. Get networking on Facebook and make sure you join all the groups that discuss Bizarro literature, think about the Bizarro writing workshops too. There’s no initiation or bull-shit. If you write bizarre, weird fiction there’s a place for you.

Chris Kelso is a Scottish writer, illustrator, editor and journalist. He has also been printed frequently in literary and university publications across the UK, US and Canada. He and Garrett Cook are the co-creator of ‘The Imperial Youth Review. His books include, Schadenfreude, Moosejaw Frontier, A Message from the Slave State, Last Exit to Interzone and the upcoming books - The Black Dog Eats the City, Transmatic and The dissolving Zinc Theatre. 

Thanks Chris.  To read my short reviews of A Message from the Slave State and Schadenfreude click here and here. MM

Monday, 21 October 2013

What I talk about when I talk about the pain in my bones

A wee while ago I read Haruki Murakami's inspiring memoir 'What I talk about when I talk about running' for a number of reasons. The first being I am a fan of Murakami's novels, but I am also a runner and a writer and I was intrigued to see how he linked the two.

In the book he talks about his motives for running. This man is a serious athlete competing in marathons, ultra marathons and triathlons so I was surprised that his motives were not competitive.   He explains that he started running about the same time he became a writer and it was a lifestyle choice. He realised that writing is a sedentary profession and if he wanted to be in it for the long haul he would need to maintain his body in ways he had never considered before.  This got me thinking about my own well-being story.

As humans we are not designed to sit all day. It wasn't long ago we were hunter gatherers. In the last fifty years or so, with the decline of industrialisation in the western world, our employment and our leisure time is increasingly spent sitting, usually in front of a keyboard, screen or smart device. The news reports rises in cases of obesity, heart disease and poor circulation as a result but there is never a mention of how our poor joints and muscles are coping with the changing trend.

Homework Space
Even before I became a full time writer I had pain issues.  Life in the Corporateland, years of lugging a laptop around, heaving cases in and out of aircraft overhead lockers had left me with shoulder, back and arm pain. I hoped that slowing down and working in one space might help; a weekly Pilates class would sort out little niggles, time to run short distances would shake out those tight shoulders.  It did for a while, but after long periods typing I found my shoulders creping up to almost touch my ears.  After days of editing, needle pains began to shoot down my left arm (even though I am right handed).  Like Mr M I want to keep writing as long as I can.  Something had to change.

As years passed I began to notice my mother's mobility decreased exponentially.  Just before she died at the age of eighty six, she had shrunk to the size of a child and had all but seized up, her bones and tendons cracking audibly when she did dare to rise to her feet.  And in her I saw myself thirty years down the line.

A few years ago I began myofascial release treatment with the added benefit of a therapist who is also my Pilates teacher. She knew my weak points and from day one gave me homework and one simple tip which was to change my working arrangement regularly.  The body doesn't tell you when you are in the wrong position until it is too late and it has sneakily learned to adapt. This puts strain on other parts of the body. By changing position the body doesn't get a chance to adapt. The pattern is being constantly broken.

I don't claim to understand the full meaning of myofascial, but the treatment is a cross between stretching, massage and torture. When my muscles are knotted tighter than a clenched fist she performs a treatment called 'stripping out' which is more painful than child birth (I'm not kidding, it is!) It is no surprise then that I do my homework.

The latest piece of homework involves a roller.  This is to prevent the back spasms which occur when I spend too much time sitting and reading which leaves me debilitated for weeks.  Holidays used to be a time when I could curl up on a sofa and read a book from cover to cover. Not anymore.  We (my therapist and I) have come to the conclusion that I need to be in perpetual motion.  That is a tough call for a writer and layabout, and much as I love The Wizard of Oz movie, I have no desire to be Tinman. And I am not the only one afflicted, a Google search threw out a number of blogs about the same subject. Here is one.

I now need to walk about a bit folks.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

I Luv Paris (with exceptions) #3 - August or Fermeture Annuelle

Bonnes vacances à toutes et à tout

I returned to Paris on the 2nd of August after a short trip to Scotland.  When I popped out of the Metro at Alésia I thought I had taken a wrong turn; caught the train to ghost town instead of my usual busy little 14e Arrondissement.  Cafe Zeyer, closed for refurbishment, set the trend.  All along the street shutters were down, cafe chairs and tables stacked in corners, usually busy bar tabacs with handwritten signs hung on closed doors, even our little corner boulangerie had its green blinds drawn and buttoned.  August in Paris means Fermeture Annuelle.  The time when every small business shuts up shop and goes on holiday for the month of August.  How would we survive? What would it be like living in a ghost town? It was easy.   

Paris was hot and steamy but I wasn't complaining.  If I wanted crowds I need only go to the Seine in central Paris where a horde of tourists hugged the river bank oblivious to the fact that outside that enclave the city was virtually empty.  

In the 14e the Monoprix was open so we wouldn't starve and the market, although drastically cut, still had one of each type of stall and an abundance of fresh sunflowers for sale.

The biggest problem was finding an open boulangerie. Parisians take their bread very seriously and ever since 1789, when one poor baker was hung for running out of bread, the annual holidays of boulangeries have been regulated by La Préfecture de Police. Parisians should never have to travel more than a couple of streets for their daily bread. The problem was the trial and error of finding one that was open.

There are great advantages of being in Paris in August. Shorter queues at museums, being able to sprint over the busy junction at Porte d’Orléans without having to run the gauntlet of red light blindness, no junk mail, no cold calls and being able to get a seat on the bus. 

Shut for a month

It is now nearing the end of the month and slowly the shops are cranking up the shutters and sweeping out the summer dust. It feels like the end of summer. Although the streets are again filled with the smell of baking bread, through that I can smell autumn's rapid approach. The leaves are falling and the sun is falling too.  It has been a good August.

The Exception

Mosquitoes. According to the locals this has been an exceptionally hot summer and the result is more mozzies.  Some mornings I would wake with tracks of bites across my shoulders and legs.  I tried tea-tree oil mixed with lavender oil, but that proved no deterrent. In the end a new bedtime ritual of swot the mosquitoes was the only solution.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

I Luv Paris (with exceptions) #2 - Tenements and Tents

According to Wikipedia two million people live within the twenty inner city arrondissements of Paris, twelve million live in the metropolitan area making Paris one of the largest population centres in Europe. I don't know if these facts are correct but I do know that compared to other cities I have visited and a few I have lived in, Paris does seem to have a higher population living within the city. And because this is in an area that, up until recently, had a cap on building height most of the residents live in six and seven floor tenements pulling out of every rues, avenue and boulevards. It seems to work well. Our tiny one bedroom apartment is on the third floor of a traditional building six high. An old original wooden staircase spirals up an airy well, lined with an ornate window between each landing giving additional light for the steep ascent. Our heavy door opens into a postage stamp size hall giving little space between each room. The shower-room has been creatively fitted to ensure the porcelain jigsaws in place somewhere or other and the galley kitchen can hold only one person at a time, making the task of lifting a hot dish out of the oven a feat of physical agility I have had to learn.

Tenement Stairs  (image C Baird)

The bedroom has a mirrored robe which gives the room a feeling of great space. But it is the living room which gives the apartment its charm. This primrose yellow painted room is in fact two rooms knocked into one and again, with a large mirror positioned at one end, the room feels like a ballroom. Two full length windows, guarded by a Paris balcony, open out into the narrow street providing vast portions of light reflected off the concrete building across the road which even the heavy wooden furniture cannot absorb.

City of light - mirrors and concrete buildings

I lived briefly in a Glasgow tenement about seven years ago and had forgotten how liberating it was to live with few possessions around, little drying space for clothes, a kitchen cupboard with space for only a few ingredients to work with and the familiarity of the noises around – from the street and the building. Although I very rarely see my neighbours they are evident. The rattle of the wee boy upstairs as he races to school and he tries to beat his personal best in the seconds he takes from top to bottom. Each day I hold my breath convinced that today he must surely break his neck. Or the other footsteps down in the morning and wearily back up again at night. I occasionally meet the elderly monsieur on the second floor as he returns from the boulangerie and sometimes the oriental gentleman on the ground floor who takes responsibility for putting the bins out. Each 'close' share a dedicated bottle bank (needed for all those red wine bottles) and recycling bin that are emptied twice a week, there are two smaller bins for general waste. The stairs are cleaned by an outside contractor - Friday mornings the streets around here are plashed with the slops of the close cleaners. I reckon the most secure jobs in Paris are those of close cleaners, bakers and those guys that erect and dismantle the market stalls. It all works very well.

So what is the downside? The downside is that of all the large cities in Europe I have visited nowhere is the homeless more visible than in Paris. Maybe it is a good thing the problem is so visible, but I'm not so sure. The homeless seem to be accepted by the locals but does that mean responsibility is devolved? The homeless I have encountered tend to be very polite, non-aggressive white, middle aged men who spend their days either begging, sleeping or sitting around reading and chatting to each other. Residents give them food and drink and they live in tents erected on the pavement. When I first arrived and saw a tent on the pavement I thought it was a one off, but I soon discovered they can be found in little enclaves in most arrondissements. There is one new camp set up beside Montparnasse Cemetery flying the flag of Breton – they seem to be in for the long haul.
Homeless winter camp beside The Observatory

Of course it isn't just in the inner city. In some of the poorer Banlieues (suburbs) where high rise living and social housing is normal, there are huge shantytowns sprawled over large areas of land. One can be seen from RER B. At first it looks like a landfill site with rubbish strewn everywhere, until you notice the smoke from the little crooked chimneys reaching out above the chaos. The site beside Stade de France has re-emerged again after it was dismantled for the Rugby World Cup.

I am only an observer and I admit to not having all the facts but I can't help wondering why a city that boasts some of the most expensive couture in the world cannot help the poor man rolled up in a tartan blanket, asleep on the pavement, right outside a high class fashion outlet?

Keeping warm in November on Rue de Sèvres

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

A Writer's Paradox

It is the time I wait for and the time I dread.  That magical time when I can write The End to a novel length manuscript.  But am I alone in this feeling of emptiness when it all ends? I bet F Scott Fitzgerald or Ernest Hemingway never had this problem when they finished a book.

For the past year I have started my day knowing exactly what I will be doing, when and where.  I could be writing a new chapter or rewriting, or polishing up a piece to send to one of my early readers.  I might even be having a morning in the library to check up on some facts before meeting a friend for lunch.  Whatever I was doing it will have involved my novel.

Then one day I wake up and think what am I going to do today?  What happened to a those dreams over the last few months, of the ending, of all the free time I will have to play with words, to read books, to explore the world outside of the four walls of my writer's cave. What's stopping me? Maybe other writers go straight onto the next project. I can't do that, the creative side of my brain has been sucked dry and is withering somewhere in a corner waiting for the inspiration juice to perk it up.

It is May and I am living in Paris. It should be simple to be inspired, I just need to walk round the corner to my local cafe and people watch.  Why the restlessness, the inactivity?

Guilt is perhaps one of the reasons. Guilt of having all this free time while my partner goes out to his nine til five every day.  Or is it simply just a lack of routine?  One thing is for sure, something has to change.

Here are six things I am attempting to do this week to shake this feeling - at least into next week;

1. Stop feeling guilty.  There have been many times when I have worked well into the late evening while my partner sat reading or playing his guitar.  I gave up a nine to five to be a full time writer. He has accepted that now I need to do the same.  Despite what writers' interviews would have you believe  writers don't, won't, can't write full time.  There needs to be a bit of, what my old boss called, blue sky thinking.

2. Read poetry, read widely and start making a list of all the new exciting words that crop up in that reading.  At the beginning of this year I began a poetry challenge to read a poem a day and to sample a new poet each week.  So far I have been successful in this challenge, but up until now I was only passively reading. By writing down each new word I become active in my own learning. Not only will this widen my vocabulary but it will also fuel my creative tanks.

3.  Read the internet news and allow taking the luxury of following threads through the forest of news until embroiled in stories I would never normally reach.  Be shocked, be enraged, be sympathetic, be bemused.  whatever it is take it in, from all over the world and learn what is going on around you.

4. Ask someone to write down five words or phrases in your note book and then, over the week write something about each one.  It is quite incredible when the first topic is written down other unrelated ideas jump forward to be added to the list   My partner gave me five topics last night and already the list has doubled.

5.  Be inspired by the masters - read the Paris Review Interviews.  Some of these are pretty old, but reading them is like having a chit chat round the corner with some of the iconic writers of our time.  When I was writing my novel I would often have a sneak read at some of these, now I have time to indulge myself.

6. Have fun with words.   Someone told me before my first novel was published that it was the best time in her writing career. After her debut novel was published she lost some of her love of writing.  I think this is because the pressure is on for a steady performance, but just like any job of work artists have good days and bad days.  The best thing about being a writer is that you are a writer. It is a huge privilege to be able to entertain others using words, but it is an even greater privilege to be able to entertain ourselves   I have now given myself permission to be free with words and to play. It doesn't matter whether anyone else reads them or not.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

I Luv Paris (with exceptions) #1 - Le Petit Commerce

I don't know if this is true all over Paris but in 14ème arrondissement Le Petit Commerce is thriving. By that I mean small businesses - bars, restaurants, shops and markets. The High Street in my home town in Fife, as in most Scottish towns, is a continuation of empty shops carrying For Let signs interspersed with a sprinkling of pound shops and charity shops. I have seen no evidence of this type of dereliction in Paris - in fact I have found very few charity shops. In our neighborhood there is a healthy mix of businesses. I can't be sure of all the reasons for this but I can guess a few. 

The biggest factor I see is the absence of large supermarkets. There may be some out of town but within the Périphérique (ring road) boundary there are only small shops. Parisians live in small tenements, often six or seven stories high, without a lift; most don't own a car. It would be very difficult to go to Asda or Tesco, do a large shop, lug it up six flights of stairs and then find a place in your tiny galley kitchen to store the food.  Parisians seem to enjoy the art of shopping. Why shop in one pace when you can still buy cheese from a fromagerie, preserved meat from a charcuterie and fish from a poissonnerie. Local loyalty and specialization still rule.

And then there is the French love of fresh bread. On any street at anytime of the day, you will see people carrying home their batons, often tearing the top off to eat on the way because they cant resist that delicious fresh baked warmth. We have three boulangeries in our area. They all display a mouthwatering palate of cakes and pastries and as if by some prior arrangement, they all take a different day's closing. Sundays are a particular favorite with the Parisian cake buyers. Gift wrapped cake boxes are carried home with care, as if the bearer were carrying a new born baby. We have succumbed to this tradition by treating ourselves to a modest tranche of Flan Nature, a cake so delicious it has become my guilty pleasure. 

Next is the availability of good quality open air fresh food markets. On any day of the week there is a fresh food market within five minutes walk of my house. We go each Sunday to the nearest and happily queue for meat, fish, cheese and vegetables and of course like every good Parisian we finish our shop at the fresh flower stall. Although my french is pitiful the stall holders remain cheery and patient and between us we manage to complete the transaction with little variation between what I ask for and what I actually get. 

Groceries can be bought in little franchise supermarkets called Simply, Franprix and Monoprix - the equivalent of UK's Spar shops. The selection is usually varied and there are enough stores around to pick and choose. And as with the markets, the origin of the food is clearly marked and the majority is locally produced. In my first month in Paris I had an overwhelming desire for Scottish Oatcakes. I searched high and low and eventually emailed Nairns who gave me the addresses of three stockist in the centre of Paris but then last week I found the Franprix round the corner now stocks them - result!

Small cafes and bars seem to survive in this hard economic climate. The habit of locals dropping in for a coffee at any time of day must help and the owners' willingness to open at all hours of the day and night must be a contributing factor. Most serve 'formule' meals at reasonable prices and there is often two hour long happy hours on offer. Many have arrangements with huitres (oyster) sellers allowing stalls to set up in front of their bars for one or two days a week when in season. They also double as Tabacs, selling stamps, tobacco and transport tickets.

On the whole the petit shopping experience is very enjoyable but as with everything there is a down side. Many (not all) of the small franchise shops appear to give no customer service training to their staff. The staff look and act miserable all the time, not just with étrangers like me, but with everyone. They appear to hate every minute of their job. In comparison to the cheery stall holders and family run bars I can't help wondering if their conditions of work are very poor and there is a resentment towards the predominantly middle class in the area. Unfortunately it is unlikely I will ever find out. It is a shame because like all the contributors to Le Petit Commerce these stores are providing what their customers want - minus the smile.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013


This time last week I had no idea that scribbling on books had a name but week three of my poetry challenge ended with Billy Collin's alerting me to the art of Marginalia through his poem of the same name. And with startling synchronicity The Huffington Post ran an article on 22nd January on the same subject.

I am a bit of a book purist and the thought of even dropping a flake of chocolate in the creases of a book brings me out in a clammy sweat.  However the discovery that this is common place, even an art form reminded me of the time when I was thrilled to find scribbling of a superior kind.

It happened when I was researching motivational quotes in Glasgow's majestic Mitchell Library. The only book I could find on Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, thought to be the founder of Taoism, was in the Edwin Morgan Collection. Edwin Morgan, one of Scotland's greatest poets, died in 2010. At the time of my research he was still alive though very ill.  The books in this collection are kept in some special far away place.  A request form is completed and the precious book is brought to you. Pencil only can be used to take notes and I would hate to think what punishment is delivered if the librarians sniff a whiff of ink. The feeling of being watched is unnerving.

With all the high security I was amazed to find in this edition fine spun pencil marks in the body of the text and margins - questions marks, affirmations and the odd additional wise word. I was being treated to a lecture by two great men.  It could be the marginalia did not belong to Edwin Morgan, it did not matter, he allowed the marks to stand and that was enough for me. I assume they are still there and no one has rubbed them out.

Post script on this subject:  Is there an art form of dead finds in books?

Today I opened a borrowed copy of Oscar Wilde's Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and found on page five pressed across the bottom two lines, a very dried, squashed spider. Being a confirmed arachnophobic I could neither destroy the relic or read the page. It gave a whole new meaning to the term page turner.

 Poetry Challenge Update

My week spent with the poems of Billy Collins was a delightful and rich experience and I have no doubt I will return to his slick brand of philosophy some time soon. Thank you Poem Hunter for providing the free ebook of his poems.

In Week Four of my poetry challenge I will explore poet and poem Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám translated by Edward FitzGerald.   The copy I have is a 1909 (3rd edition) of the first version by FitzGerald and is a great find. It cost me £1.00 in the wonderful chaotic bookstore Voltaire and Rousseau in Otago Lane, Glasgow.  The poem can be read in one sitting but I plan to read it many times this week to absorb the beauty of the language and also to learn a little history of the poem and its many manifestations.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Resolutions of a Transient

At the beginning of every year since I don't know when I have listed goals and resolutions and for the most part I have met those goals.

Because I am a realist I don't list goals of weight loss, alcohol reduction and an increase in fitness - these are ongoing battles for me to win and lose.  My annual goals have been around my writing, learning new skills and my garden.  I never realized until this year that goal setting relied on a certain amount of stability and routine.

2013 will be for me a disruptive year. I will probably be spending about 60% of my time in Paris, returning to Scotland only to meet necessary commitments.  I had already resigned myself to the fact that my vegetable garden would have a fallow year and my greenhouse will be used to store logs.

My whistle playing has all but ceased due to the proximity of my neighbours in the Paris 3rd floor apartment and even when I am at home domestic chores take priority over learning new tunes.

My 2013 resolutions needed to be quiet and portable.

Number one is to finish my ongoing novel project.  This is top priority with a self imposed deadline to finish in the first quarter of the year.  I also want to write a rough draft of another novel in November during National Novel Writing Month. This has worked for me in the past so I am ready to give it another whirl.

My learning goal is obvious - improve my terrible French. I try to do a little each day but it is not easy outside of a class.  If the novel goes to plan I intend to enroll in an Alliance Française crash course in the summer.

But I also want to improve my writing.  Long projects can grind me down,  I fall in a rut, sometimes things need spiced up.  I hit upon an idea to read at least one poem a day and choose a new poet every week.  As an ex accountant the numbers appealed to me. It would add up to more than three hundred and sixty five poems and fifty two new poets by the time the bells bring in 2014.

Where to start?  I was away for New Year so chose my first poet from what was available on my Bookeen book reader.  Poems of the Past and the Present by Thomas Hardy included some war poems and seemed a good opener. Many of the poems made me cry, many I couldn't understand but loved the beauty of their language.  My favorites from this collection were The Colonel's Soliloquy, The Mother Mourns and 'I said to Love'.

I don't intend to review the poems I read but hope that by the end of the year I will have a better understanding of form and can learn from the experience of reading varied poets from many eras.

Because many poets are among my Facebook friends I asked there for recommendations.  I now have a list list of about twenty poets.  The over whelming suggestion was for a poet I already had on my list,  Kathleen Jamie.   Her collection The Overhaul has been awarded the Costa Poetry Award 2012 and my copy arrived just as I was leaving for Paris. I started the book on Monday night and it has been difficult not to gobble this masterpiece up in one sitting. It is a delight.  Every poem has merit but The Gather is my favorite. It is gentle of voice yet strong in character and emotion.

Although this is prescribed reading I know I will return to these collections time and again.  The prescriptive nature is necessary to reign in my flighty nature and open up new worlds to me.