Meet the Writers in ‘Tolstoy Tried to Kill My Girlfriend’

Tolstoy Tried to Kill My Girlfriend features several famous writers as characters – here’s a quick introduction to the key figures, and why they’re important.

E. M. Forster (1879 – 1970)
Forster doesn’t physically appear in this play, but he does haunt it. It was Forster who was my initial inspiration for the writer Deacon, although, much like Heath, Deacon turned out to be a character who grew away from my initial intention!

Forster was part of the Bloomsbury group, a friend of Virginia Woolf, and author of such famous titles as Howard’s End, A Passage to India, and Where Angels Fear to Tread as well as early sci-fi story The Machine Stops.

That Forster was gay was known within his immediate circle, though not public. He lived through the infamous Oscar Wilde indecency trials of 1895 in which Wilde was prosecuted for homosexuality and sentenced to prison time, as well as through the 1969 Stonewall riots, thus witnessing a huge change in fight for queer rights.

E. M. Forster

In later years, Forster was a close friend and mentor to Christopher Isherwood (author of Goodbye to Berlin), but despite the greater leniency of the 1960s, he was still not publicly out. Upon his death he bequeathed a novel to Isherwood.

E. M. Forster and Christopher Isherwood

That novel was Maurice, a story about a young gay man at the start of the twentieth century: Maurice goes to a doctor thinking something is wrong with him, and asks to be cured. Gradually he comes to terms with his sexuality, falls in love, and has his heart broken, falls in love again. The ending of the novel (and SPOILER ALERT, obviously) sees Maurice retire to the country with his second love, and live a quiet and happy life with him, away from society.
When I first read this book I cried at the end; I’d expected misery for Maurice, but somehow this vision of happiness was all the more painful it was something he knew he would never be able to share.

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf is something of a queer icon. Her love affair with Vita Sackville-West is well known (and if you haven’t read their letters, I strongly recommend you treat yourself – what a love affair!). Her novel Orlando is so far ahead of it’s time in its deconstruction of the gender binary. Orlando simply abandons one gender for another as they feel like it, and has male and female lovers, and sometimes lovers who dress female to earn their love and then reveal themselves to be male. It’s a peculiar novel that masquerades as a biography, and has plenty of witty observations that smash conventional ideas of gender and other societal norms.

Virginia Woolf

I loved writing Virginia. I found her a playful character, immensely curious, and somewhat playful. Her real-life relationship with Forster really helped me to shape her attitudes to Deacon. Woolf and Forster often talked frankly about love and sex, even though Forster, for all his own homosexuality, wasn’t too sure about lesbians (oh dear).
In the play she is often watching people, bickering with Tolstoy, and generously encouraging others to find their voice and their purpose.

Tilda Swinton as Orlando and Charlotte Valandrey as Princess Sasha in Sally Potter’s 1992 film of Orlando.

Lev Tolstoy
Of course, I’ve got to talk about Tolstoy! He gets into the title after all.
Tolstoy is obviously a central figure of the play, but this is perhaps surprising. He represents the cannon and the status quo that so many queer writers like Deacon feel the need to conform to. While many readers find his moral writings difficult to read and even harder to follow, absolutely no one can doubt his genius as a writer. War and Peace and Anna Karenina are utterly fabulous explorations of humanity.

Lev Tolstoy

In the play we explore the contradictions between what Tolstoy set out to do, and what he ultimately ended up doing. When I was doing my MA in Russian Literature at UCL I was fascinated by how Tolstoy’s ideas started out as one thing (writing Anna Karenina to show how a silly society woman cheating on her husband affected that noble long-suffering husband), and ended up another (a sensitive portrayal of a woman in an impossible situation, trapped in a loveless marriage, doing what is clearly right for her, but tormented by society’s response). One of my favourite scenes in the play occurs in act two, when after much of Tolstoy’s moralising, Anna Karenina herself sweeps in and confronts him.
I reread Anna Karenina for this, and was struck by the addition of the character Levin (who many see as a Tolstoy himself -Lev/Levin anyone?) who at first condemns Anna’s actions, but slowly comes round to understanding her by the time they finally meet. I suspect this novel ended up being about Tolstoy himself coming to understand a woman like Anna.

Keira Knightley as Anna Karenina and Jude Law as Alexei Karenin in Joe Wright’s 2021 film of Anna Karenina.

Tolstoy Tried to Kill My Girlfriend – (pt1)

If you were to write about love, would it be a tragedy or a romance?

My new play ‘Tolstoy Tried to Kill My Girlfriend’ is about the narratives we tell as queer writers, as a young writer decides to change the ending of the novel by killing off the protagonist’s girlfriend. This plan is interrupted by the protagonist herself bursting in and doing what she can to keep her story a happy one, and save it from tragedy.

When I first learned the myths about Mount Parnassus, a mountain in Greece where the muses were fabled to live, I got a picture in my head of all the great writers ascending to this particular kind of heaven where they could talk to one another, and meet the figures they’d created.

No sooner had I imagined this than I thought how some of those characters might be less than impressed to meet their authors. Would Romeo and Juliet really have anything to thank Shakespeare for? Would Emily Bronte enjoy a conversation with Heathcliffe?

The two central characters, Deacon the writer and Heath the character, are original, but as they argue out what should happen in the book, they each summon various great writers and characters from literature to support their argument. Great Expectations’ Magwitch and Miss Havisham have a thing or two to say about authors who change the ending of the story, while Tolstoy, as you might have guessed from the title, is all in favour of killing off the girlfriend, though he’s none too happy to be confronted by his own character Anna Karenina.

Do you need to have read Tolstoy to enjoy the play? Definitely not. The original characters carry the heart of the story, and I hope the play will introduce some audience members to new books they’ll be intrigued to go and explore.

We’re on at Camden People’s Theatre 21st-25th June. I hope you’ll come and see the show and enjoy a unique theatre experience full of literary figures, laughter, and queer pride. 🏳️‍🌈

Creative Voices of Uganda

Anyone following my social media will know that in 2020/21 I have also been running short courses online for Busano Community, Uganda, while their local schools are closed due to the COVID pandemic.

I am so incredibly proud of the literary achievements of these students, especially in such difficult conditions, and so I considered how best I could share that achievement with the world.

I decided to edit together a collection of their works. I spoke to a number of artists who kindly volunteered their talents, either of works they already had, or specifically painting portraits of the students for the book.

One of the fantastic illustrations, this one by Kerry Whitley @kerryW_art

We sold a fantastic number of copies, and all money raised went straight back to educational supplies for the students.

If you’d like to purchase a copy – you can do so by getting in touch with me, or ordering one online here: https://www.lulu.com/en/ie/shop/joanna-harker-shaw/creative-voices-of-uganda/paperback/product-kj2rj2.html?page=1&pageSize=4

Busano Community students relaxing this spring 2021

Why I don’t trust Austen

As an academic I am a Romanticist. My PhD, through its focus on the Shelleys Mary and Percy Bysshe, rambles around the 1810s and 20s, the Regency and Georgian era. So I come up against Miss Jane Austen rather a lot. People who know this is my area of study tend to assume I like her. Friends who know my distaste for the romance genre tend to assume I do not like her.

The truth is, of course, more complicated.

Illustration of Elizabeth and Darcy from the 2005 Joe Wright film

Austen is an extraordinary prose writer. Every sentence is well crafted, and she has a readability that few of her contemporaries (or even Victorian novelists) possess. I want to like Austen. On the single page level I am chuckling, admiring the characterisation and creativity, the spark with which she illuminates the quotidian. 

And yet, I do not trust her. 

E. M. Forster once said that we can trust Beethoven because however joyously he concludes his works, the Goblins are always there, and can return at any time. The Goblins are the ills of this world, the tragedies, cruelties, and heartbreaks that sometimes dog our every step, and sometimes sneak up on us and snatch away our peace.

(This marvellous passage on Beethoven is absolutely essential reading if you’re not familiar – indeed, essential reading even if you are familiar because it’s so utterly rereadable – go read it now! It’s from Howard’s End, Chapter 5, page 33 in my tattered 1963 Penguin Modern Classics edition.)

In Austen the happy endings are too absolute. Elizabeth happens to see the good in Darcy, who just so happens to be marvellously rich and everything works out a little too conveniently for me to believe it. 

Not that I mind a happy ending, but that tragedy, when it does fall, either stings only briefly and works out for the best, or happens to someone else, not us, and is only glimpsed sidelong.

Of the first, I think of Persuasion’s Louisa Musgrove. Louisa is more less a nice person, but she is the obstacle between our protagonist Anne and the man she loves, Captain Wentworth who is clearly courting Louisa. Now, this is an Austen novel, so we know our lovers will be united, so how to get rid of Louisa? She takes a tumble and cracks her poor little head open. 

Surely, that’s Goblins enough? 

Something terrible has happened to a good person. 

Not quite. 

Because Louisa doesn’t just die. That would cast a shadow over Anne and Wentworth’s future happiness. No. While recovering, she falls in love, of her own volition, with someone else. Thus she is neatly removed from the triangle. Too neatly. 

The second tragedy is peripheral, and not directly attacked. This occurs sometimes with minor heartache – Elizabeth Bennet’s friend Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice actually marries the ridiculous Mr Collins who Elizabeth with her youth and beauty has previously rejected. Neither of them like him, but Charlotte’s situation is a little more desperate, and she makes the sacrifice of a loveless marriage for family circumstance. At once she becomes distant in the novel, acting as a warning to Elizabeth. Bad things happen to other people, it seems, not to us, the heroines of Austen novels.

I honestly don’t enjoy reading a novel where bad things don’t happen. Why? Because bad things do happen in life, and to deny them is to plunge one head in the sand and lie. I need to trust an author. Given a narrative world in which bad things do happen, but on a particular occasion things have worked out well, I am plenty apt to cry for happiness. That gives me comfort, in a way that the sheer stubborn escapism of an Austen novel never could.

Interview by Ed Garvey-Long

Here’s an interview I did with fellow poet Ed Garvey-Long. Head on over to Ed’s webside for the full piece.

“When I get stuck with a character I’ll paint them”

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Joanna Harker Shaw is a novelist, photographer, and artist.  In this interview they talk about the stubbornness needed to complete a novel, charity shop finds, and combining visual arts and writing. Their twitter is: https://twitter.com/JoHarkerShaw and their website is: harkershaw.wordpress.com

What is your main creative practice? 

Mainly, it’s writing my novel, but I also take photographs and draw a lot. 

What drives you to do you do what you do?

There’s a simple inclination that has me always picking up a pen, stories that run round my head that I want to share – but actually finishing one novel is sheer stubbornness and determination. I have to rise early and work at it. At this point the drive is to have something to share. 

Amy Deakin – Words with Poets

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I have been lucky enough to see Amy Deakin perform several times (something that, since she’s taken over the hosting of Wordsearch Live! in Sutton, can be enjoyed the third Wednesday of every month), and every time she’s brought the audience to fits of laughter  with a humour that mingles delightfully with sincerity.

Her poetry ranges from Daleks and enchanted super market checkouts to serious considerations of a future eliminated by Global Warming. Her first collection is Morden, And Other Tourist Destinations, published by Paper Tiger Press.

As a writer she’s inspired especially by her mother, fellow poet Pauline Deakin, and by spoken work artists. She writes impulsively, following the anger or inspiration as it comes, and rejects any specific writing method.

AD: I didn’t have the world’s greatest experience of being taught creative writing at university. At school I wrote a lot of sketches and poems for the church and found that really helpful. So I went onto university, my tutor didn’t like what I did, and she marked me down for content – looking back on that stuff now I think, yes, it definitely needed improvement, but I didn’t ever get that constructive helpful feedback. They had their ideas of what poetry should look like – like a series of concrete nouns. There is a certain style – it wins a lot of competitions – and it’s not what I want to write. There’s no point me forcing it to look how someone else wants it to look.

And what I found frustrating they weren’t trying to help me get better at my own style, they were trying to make me fit what their style was. ‘This is what is published – try and do it more like that.’

I have had things published and appreciated in my style, and that means more. There’s still lots of room for improvement, don’t get me wrong. But practicing, submitting, being part of a writing group, has been better than any formal tuition.

In a group we would mutually support each other, and encourage each other to read out loud. I have no idea if it made me a better writer, but it made me keep writing.

JHS: Do you have any specific process for writing?

AD: I’m not one for technique – I write on the fly – and I like editing things over and over gain, but I don’t use a particular strategy. I buck against the idea of having to do things a certain way.

When I was studying creative writing at university I spent weeks and weeks preparing a poem for an assignment, tinkering with it, but it didn’t quite work. And then, in a couple of hours I wrote a different poem. And my tutor loved it, and that was ‘The Poet’s Garden.’

Another poem – ‘Sensitive’ – took a while to write about that subject – I’ve written many different poems on that subject. And I still feel I’ve never got that poem quite right, so when I look at it I still tweak it. It’s such a complex and personal subject I’m careful to get that right. Whereas others a more comic storytelling type of poem.

I wouldn’t say I do a first draft/ second draft. I have a working draft I tinker with. As  performance poet my process is different – what I often do is edit by reading. So I might have edited it a couple of times, but when I read it out loud I go ‘ooh that doesn’t work, that could be better,’ and then I look at it after reading I edit it then.

But once it’s published, that’s it, that’s the way it is. I might one day come back and wish I’d done it differently, but once it’s printed it’s done.

I do try and rehearse my performances, but sometimes I think I don’t rehearse enough, but I always find that as much as you rehearse something when you get up on stage it’s always slightly different, it’s never word by word.

I’m very much about audience participation, making eye contact, especially with the humorous poems- you’ve got to wait and see what an audience finds funny, you might leave more time, read things differently.

JHS: What is it that makes you pick up a pen, (or other writing device)?

AD: I usually write because I’m annoyed – I just think, I need to get this out somehow. Somehow I write a rambley rant about it and then will shape that into a poem – particularly for political pieces.

Or I might have an idea when I’m listening to someone & I think, that’s an interesting take, how about I take a different take on it. For example someone did a poem about being a machine, and then I started to think about what it might be like to be a supermarket self-service check out machine, and I wrote a whole poem about someone who becomes a supermarket self-service check out machine.

And sometimes it’s because people want me to write about something – people will say ‘Oh could you write a poem for a Christmas event.’ And I sit there until something comes to me.

So I wouldn’t say you have to wait for the muse, wait to be inspired… I don’t think that’s true. Sometimes you just need to write something, anything, even if it’s lame, and eventually there might be one bit of it that isn’t lame, and then you use that. I don’t have a very fancy or scientific process.

When I was at university we had something called creative writing club, and there’d be an inspiration, and you’d have half an hour to write around that- Go! And I loved it, I’d come up with reams and reams of stuff, and lots of it needed to be edited down. But I found that really helpful having that prompt, it sends my brain off thinking of all sorts of thing.

JHS: Do you have an idea of what the poem is going to be when you start writing?

Not usually. Quite often I have an idea, as with the supermarket self-service check out machine, but I didn’t think it was going to end in the way it did, and I surprised myself.

I’m not a planner, when it comes to writing. I don’t say that it will have this many stanzas and it will be about this. I retrospectively add the structure – which can be more painful – perhaps its easier for planners to edit.

I don’t make a distinction between page and performance. Some poems don’t suit the same theatrical style of performance, I might read them in a more measured way, thinking about the voice behind the poem, rather than the audience.

Humorous poems tend to go down well – political poems, it depends on the audience. So if you have an audience, shall we say a younger demographic, a certain political stance… if you do poems mocking the right wing figures they go down better, but then I sometimes find that I am more reserved about doing the personal ones, but sometimes they can resonate with people. So you might not get as big a reaction on the stage, but someone might come up to you afterwards and say ‘that helped me in some way.’

JHS: Do you feel poetry has a purpose or even duty to engage with important issues?

AD: I think it can do. I feel it’s a bit much to say that all poetry must – but I do think poetry has something to add with political debate, and is a good way  of expressing a voice, a good way of expressing voices that often don’t get heard, I’ve been to a few poetry events and you hear people who you don’t normally hear from – I don’t consider myself a marginalised voice, but there are those who are marginalised, and poetry is a place for them.

But poetry doesn’t have a moral duty to instruct. Nothing should be forced.

People have been saying no one reads poetry anymore – but they listen to it! And corporates do try to hijack it, and that cheapens it. For certain people, especially younger people, it’s an important event.

JHS: You’re now running Wordsearch live… Tell me more about that.

AD: It’s been good – we’re not a big event at the moment. We have more poetry appreciators than poets, which is nice, because often at poetry events you have poets performing to other poets.

Someone’s son came along and was encouraged to read, and he had never done it before,  it was really nice to see.

I’m encouraging more people to come and share their work, especially more diverse voices.

It’s a non-intimidating event, especially for people who haven’t done poetry before.

JHS: And what poetry do you like to read?

AD: I don’t read enough poetry. As a poet I should read more poems. I do listen to poems, particularly on youtube.

JHS: I’d like to include listening as reading here.

AD: Can I give a shout out to a great poet and friend Jasmine Gardosi, who does great youtube videos, great performances, I read her book Hurtz recently – if you could see pain as colours. It’s an amazing concept book. Otherwise I’m reading a lot of novels, listening to all of His Dark Materials.

One of the early poems that got me reading when I was youner – ‘Lady Lazarus’ by Sylvia Plath, and some of the poems, the language she uses, might be seen as problematic now. But at the time, my angsty teenage self who wanted to write cathartically and wanted to write in this powerful, feminist way – she really spoke to me at that time.

Now it’s more people like Wendy Cope, who write humorously but with a seriously point – I was reading ‘Bloody Men are like Bloody Buses’ the other day and I just think that’s so perfect. And she writes in a way you might speak. My writing is aspiring more towards Wendy Cope than Sylvia Plath these days.

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Amy Deakin, photograph by Joanna Harker Shaw 

 

 

Next year I’ll probably do another collection of poetry – people have been asking, and I’m looking out for ideas – open for publishing offers – and when I wrote ‘When We Get Old’  I suddenly realised I wanted the collection to be about climate change, the scary world we live in now, in which there is actually a very short window of time for us to prevent catastrophic change which is already happening, and a lot of people neglect the fact that a lot of people are suffering right now. A short window to stop it becoming an irreversible catastrophe.

But there is hope there as well. And I’ve begun writing a lot of poems about this which I haven’t performed yet, and tracking different people’s voices and views on climate change. I’m writing my own personal voice just now, and starting look out for gathering new voices.

I want to use my writing to make some kind of difference in the world. If I can make this work, that would be a way to do that.

‘When We Grow Old’ 

This poem came out of a conversation with my boyfriend about how we’d be in a care home , and how we’d be this irritating couple who would take over the care home and make everyone do things for us – this romantic idea of growing old together, and isn’t that nice. But then, because the extinction rebellion movement is at the forefront of my mind I started thinking – I don’t know if that is actually going to happen. It’s not certain that everything will carry on as it was. And every generation has had that – nuclear war, world war I, world war ii. The science is there, everyone is saying that it is happening. And I feel so paralysed by how big it is… the only thing I can do is write poems about it. So that’s what I do.

It’s a conversation starter.

 

 

When we get old

We are planning what we will do when we get old.
Only we won’t.
Seeing other people’s babies
makes me anxious.
I flit the dial between despair and denial
like a man who can’t decide where to sit on the bus.

We are all going to die,
says the woman in BBC Estuary English.
It sounds so melodramatic,
but I can hear extinction
humming in the fridge and the radiator
as another tonne of ice
slips into the arctic sea.

Take each day at a time, they say,
live in the moment.
As if that will help us survive.
As if all the saved moments make each day
appear, money-back guaranteed.
People say I take it all too seriously,
That I should lighten up,
as we shuffle heads down towards ecocide.

I know I am part of the problem.
Cling onto tiny actions like lifeboats
while others fight with bloody hands for our world.
But I want to do something,
more out of selfishness than anything
because I love this life, and this world and the people in it.
But sometimes the something gets so big
I struggle to see what it is.

Still, I send birthday cards
and joke about our care home
as if it’s all going to carry on.
As if life is an all-you-can-eat option,
and we’ve already paid.

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Fathima Zahra Interview – Words With Poets

Zahra

Reading Fathima Zahra’s works, I think of her as poet of quiet certainty, a poet who knows herself, and has something deceptively simple but incredibly important to say. Her poems are direct, yielding meaning to first glance, and then demanding  the reader return to look again, a see anew.  Which makes it very reassuring to hear her talk about her journey to finding her own voice

“It took me a long time to realise why my poems didn’t exactly sound like me,” she says. “The only place I had to share poems was at a slam, and people would say ‘you remind me so much of Sarah Kay. It’s taken time to get out of that and to step away from slams, now that I’m finding different spaces to share poetry and to enjoy poetry.”

But it is to the slams that Zahra owes her interest in poetry. As a child she wrote enthusiastic stories of best friends in boarding schools (‘which was weird because I grew up in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia and I didn’t even know anyone who went to a boarding school so it was entirely based on novel I was consuming at the time’), and had little interest in the poetry she was given at school (a typical selection of the long-dead white men that haunt textbooks -Tennyson, Chaucer, Byron, Keats), and it wasn’t until she began to attend slams and watch videos of spoken word artists such as Canadian that poetry began to interest her. And thank goodness it did.

 She tells me that she had to disconnect her writing process from performance, from publication, from any form of sharing, in order to find her own individual tone.

‘Even when I send poems in for publication I’ve always thought of them as just stories, and with performance, I’ve always just had the need to make it more precise or more specific, because you can’t let their attention wander, they don’t have the chance to go back and read it. I don’t think there’s a major difference. I hate the page/stage divide. There are so many spoken word poets like Sarah Kaye who are now publishing their work.”

There may be exceptions on both sides – the poem that works on the page, but not on the stage, and vice versa, and there is a whole layer the poet may add in performance – but ultimately, Zahra argues that the work is the same.

A friend of mine once proposed –but to the best of my knowledge never followed through – on a study on writers and the time of day they write, claiming all the writers he liked wrote at night. Zahra is a night writer, but, acknowledge the desire to adjust herself to a day writing habit. Cultivating good writing habits is important. ‘I’ve always written when I’ve felt strongly about something, and so my poems were reactionary. But in the past few years I have been producing more work. The amount of things I discover when I force myself to write as oppose to just sitting to write when I’m inspired surprised me, and I’ve found I do have a wider range than I think I do. If you read Stephen King’s On Writing or Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird or any of the giant’s books about writing, they all talk about writing daily. And Daily Rituals  – of artist and a lot of writers – they all wrote every day.’

‘I very much struggle with the blank page, so what I’ve done is set up prompts or writing games for myself.’ Following someone else’s prompts can, she feels, throw the poet into ideas they’d never have followed, something for the most part a positive experience, but she is aware too of their impersonality, and so she makes a point of constructing her own prompts and challenges. ‘At one of the Barbican sessions Jacob Sam-La Rose talked about the idea of play, and it made me realise I’m a very serious writer, that I think of it as a job. So that made me come up with the game for this month. What I’m doing this month is writing a poem to a kind of prompt I would never normally do. I’ve never written a ghazal, I’ve never written a haiku – I don’t see the point in it. I write poems that always use the words ‘hand’, ‘tongue’ – one of the prompts is to write without those words. I’m trying to enjoy the process itself, so I’m not focused on the outcome, of where the poem goes.’

And once that prompt is done, once the first draft poured out, what’s the development process? ‘I don’t look at my writing immediately. I’ve found that the best way is to look back after a few days when I’m not too attached. Usually when I write prompts, at the weekend or the end of the month I’ll flip back through the pages and see which poems feel surprising or urgent to me, I’ll flesh them out more. I usually write an entire free-write on what I think it’s about – that feels very reductive, and redundant to spell it out – you’re not supposed to do that in your writing, but I find it useful to bring the clarity to myself. And I try to ask myself questions. It takes 3 to 4 edits to see something from that initial idea I was excited about.

‘Once I get the feeling I want to share it with someone, I take it to an open mic where I don’t know anyone, and don’t tell my friends I’m going and read it, and then do a post-performance edit based on how it felt out loud, how it felt in the room.’

And like so many writers, she thrives on poetic community. As part of a collective she has built up a circle of writers with whom she can share and receive feedback.

‘Now I’m part of a collective, I’m taking my poems back to my mentors, back to my friends, which I find very useful. Last year at the roundhouse poetry collective we were mentored by Bridget Minamore and Cecelia Knapp. Cecilia was incredible with editing my work, she doesn’t hold back, she really pushes me to ask myself ‘is this the best I can do’ – she would sit down with a black or red word and underline each word, starting with the title. I have editors who will ask big questions of me.

‘But also my peers at the collective have a strong sense – it has to do with our friendship, the trust and respect we have with each other – but also their instincts of what I might be thinking without saying it is so strong. And obviously, because they’re friends at the end of it they’re going to cheer me on.

‘We had one session where Cecilia made all of us bring in a poem, and take our names off the paper, we had to share them around and everyone had to give feedback on a piece, and only the writer would be silent, and you could only speak at the end, not to defend yourself but to answer the questions. And I was so surprised by the positive feedback, as oppose to people tearing each other, and that really opened it up for me.’

‘The only poems I’ve been going ahead with, sending out, are the ones that I’m excited by. If it didn’t surprise me in the writing process, if it didn’t surprise me in the crafting process, then I don’t think it holds much value to the audience. I have poems I’ve stuck with for four years and I’m still not done.’

And there are some poems that, however much she values as her own writing, she does not want to share. ‘Especially starting out with slams, there was one poem I wrote about my mental health. It was a showcase for a writing program that looked at mental health and poetry. So I wrote this thing, and at the time I should have known how personal it was to me, that it was something I hadn’t talked about. I read the poem out on stage and someone laughed at something that was very personal to me and that shocked me. And on stage itself I had to pause. That one experience of sharing something before I was ready… I didn’t even know at the time that’s how I felt.

‘I‘ve been wondering how to find out where I draw the line. How to say ‘this stays hidden’ and ‘this is important to share. Because it is important. In one workshop Malika Booker was talking about treating your writing like a lab experiment. You only need to report a few of those back to the world.  You only share a few results.

‘Also I realised that even when I don’t explicitly talk about mental health, it does show up in my other poems. Realising that I’m sharing parts of my life even without saying, and I don’t need to tell people all of this, has been huge. It is cathartic to write. It’s not always cathartic to share.’

And the poems she likes to read? ‘To me a good poem is one I remember, after having heard it somewhere, or read it on the page, that stays with me for a few days. I’m reading this book right now – Space Struck by Paige Lewis- they’re an incredibly poet. I’d only read one poem of theirs on poetry foundation, and I loved it so much that when this book came out I bought it on the strength of that one poem. I think the last poem I loved in this it started in one place and ended up in another. Poems that catch me out and wake me up.’

 

Fathima Zahra is part of the Roundhouse Poetry Collective, and is the winner of the Bridport Poetry Prize and the Young Poets’ Prize and the Wells Festival. 

You can sign up for her newsletter here: tinyletter.com/Fzahra97

 

Brown girls’ anthem

We die so many deaths before we turn twenty. We,
the schoolyard Kardashians. We sew our stories, rip
them out as the schoolbus pulls up at our door. We out
cast our vile tongues so the aunties won’t. Scrape it so
they won’t know where to look for nipped buds. So much
is lost in undoing shame. Before   we learned glory, we talked of
our love lives to walls. History didn’t erase us. We managed ourselves.

 

 

 

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Poems With Words

The first Recommended Reading for Poems With Words is Brigid Minamore for the black girls with white names 

‘Your Name is a lake surrounded by land that does not belong to you, and
Your Name is loose, it droops and falls and hangs off of you, keeping itself
slack. Your Name is a ruse, it lies about the truth of your Catholic convert
grandmother, all those miles away and the way she calls herself English
whilst you feel you cannot.’ 

read the full poem on Minamore’s website: bridgetminamore.com/poetry/words/fortheblackgirls 

Brigid’s first collection Titanic is published by Out Spoken Press

 

Words With Poets  is a series of interviews  that will run through 2020, asking quality poets how and why they write, discussing the methods of and reasons for (and sometimes against) disseminating poetry, and sharing some favourite poems.

All poems, those written by and those recommended by interviewees will be posted in the poetry library Poems With Words. 

This website is supported by my Patreon,so if you enjoy it I hope you’ll consider contributing. You can find more information here.