Posts Tagged poetry

Ways of seeing: 11 poets to help you polish your prose – an interview

How do we develop a sensitivity to language? Words are more than tools. They beguile, mystify, change hearts, fill the mind with shapes, colours, music.

I’ve written before about honing your prose, according to your genre. The full piece is here, but in brief:

  1. Strive to be understood
  2. Develop an ear
  3. Suit the genre
  4. Find books whose writing you want to study and savour
  5. Try many styles

Today I’m going to explore another tip. Read poetry.

My guest today is well qualified to talk about this. Joe Nutt has spent his career teaching English in schools, and is now one of the leading educationalists in the UK. He has written study books on Shakespeare, John Donne and Milton. He writes for the Times Educational Supplement, The Spectator, Spiked and Areo.

He’s now on a mission to open poetry to everyone, not just academic students, and is about to release The Point of Poetry, published by Unbound.

And since he’s raised the question with his title, I’ll ask that first – Joe, what is the point of poetry?

Joe There is something honest and pure about poetry. It’s as though there is almost nothing between you and the poet’s mind, just this thin piece of paper. They let you into their thoughts and their thoughts make you think for yourself.

Roz You certainly don’t have to convince me; I never think I’m writing well enough, so I have a row of poetry books beside my desk that I dip into when I’m working.

For the purposes of this discussion, I’ve figured out a list of qualities for good prose and I’m going to ask Joe to prescribe a poet or poem for each.

First of all, the visual shape of words… A word that is perfectly shaped for its context

Joe There are some poets who seem to care deeply about the look of a poem on the page and that visual awareness can sometimes be seen on a much smaller scale, within individual lines or even just phrases. When you look at a poem by Thomas Hardy the neatness and order of its visual pattern is often striking. But ironically, perhaps the easiest poet where you can see the visual shape of words playing a part is Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Part of the reason is his extraordinary appreciation of the sounds words make when they combine. In his poem Inversnaid, for example, you have the line

Dagged with dew, dappled with dew’

where the letters themselves, the way they look, seem to demand your attention.

Roz The letters demand your attention… the shape of a letter, or the combination of letters.

One of my favourite examples is the word ‘feral’, which jumps into your eye as ‘fear’ and ‘snarl’. Words contain emotional shapes.

I’m especially aware of this when I’m editing another writer’s manuscript. A writer might choose a word that’s correct in literal meaning, but inappropriate in that other, visceral register, and usually in a comic way – they might describe a loud and sudden sound in a way that ruins the mood of their piece.

Joe That’s so true of such a lot of mediocre writing I see. One of the great advantages of teaching English, as I did for 20 years, and to many remarkably intelligent children, is you get to see the most common mistakes. You become extraordinarily familiar with people who are naturally struggling to express themselves. I think literary agents could learn a lot from experienced English teachers.

Roz Well that’s a discussion I’d like to have some day! For now, though, let’s discuss my next poetic essential: the fall of a line, word positioning for emphasis.

Joe Hopkins again offers a great window into this meticulous use of structure in a poem.  He often repeats words in close proximity or uses words that are just one vowel change off. In the final verse of Inversnaid, which is only four lines long, he uses wet and let twice each, but ends the verse and poem with yet. Small shifts in sound but complete shifts in sense.

Roz Repetition: it’s a powerful device because it’s so noticeable.

Here’s another careful kind of structuring – the sentence that is oddly, but perfectly worded. Look at the delicacy of these lines in Philip Larkin’s poem Broadcast:

Leaving me desperate to pick out

Your hands, tiny in all that air, applauding.’

Now to my third point. What about metaphor? Nominate an example of an arresting metaphor?

Joe It’s difficult to think any poem beautiful without discussing metaphor and poets like John Milton erect monumental metaphors that can waylay an inattentive reader. But a much simpler one from The Point of Poetry would be from George Mackay Brown’s poem The Hawk. The poem is a little diary of one hawk’s eating habits and one of its victims is a chicken which dies,

Lost in its own little snowstorm’.

I once saw a sparrowhawk strike a pigeon in full flight, only a few feet in front of my windscreen, so I know exactly how that metaphor works.

Roz This leads me, so neatly, to my fourth point… The particular moment that seems to illuminate a truth about the bigger human experience…

Joe Lots of poets start with the natural world. Poets like Ted Hughes or Seamus Heaney, and when you become familiar with their work they frequently start with the local and specific, but move towards the universal.

Heaney’s poem Blackberry-Picking, which is in the book, takes what was certainly a common feature of my childhood, scavenging hedgerows for blackberries, and turns it into a powerful observation about how we yearn for things to stay as they are, but learn to appreciate the transience of pretty much everything.

William Blake also searches for significant truths in his verse, even when he starts with just a single rose or a tiger.

Roz For my fifth point, I want to talk about economy. I love this poem by Simon Armitage, which plunges you into the middle of a conversation with the writer’s thoughts…

Before you cut loose, put dogs on the list of difficult things to lose….’

It’s so bold, so colloquial, so conversationally crafted. It’s also so macroscopically true, but that’s not what I want to discuss in this point. I want to talk about how swiftly it gets to the point. Do you have a favourite example of a poem that hits the ground running?

Joe Economy is the perfect word for poetry. The cost is low but the return is just huge. That’s really what distinguishes it from all other types of writing. Poets pare everything down to the absolute essentials.

I’m a great fan of John Donne and his love poem, The Feaver, is an absolute gem. You can’t read Donne’s poetry without feeling he was a man who lived a life of extremes. A brilliant apostate whose career and financial security were destroyed after he was imprisoned for falling in love with his boss’s young daughter. Who then married and brought up a large family with her, before losing her to death in childbirth and finally joining the Anglican priesthood, more or less at the command of his king. The Feaver begins with this dramatic plea

O ! Do not die, for I shall hate

All women so, when thou art gone.’

Roz Tell me what I’ve missed.

Joe I think one of the often undervalued joys of poetry is how much we gain from rereading it. I love rereading favourite novels but only after I’ve let years pass between readings. Poetry you can return to the next day and feel differently about it, still find something new.

Roz Your book is obviously a personal crusade. Tell me what made you write it?

Joe It came about as a result of my changing career. After almost 20 years teaching English I moved into business and was struck by how limited conversations are in that world. People often ask me if I miss teaching and I always say no, but there is one thing I really do miss, the quality of the conversation. The people were just as varied and interesting as those I had found as a teacher, but conversations in the hotel bar after a day’s work stuck to a few, narrow subjects. Work, occasionally politics, sport, films and TV – and if you were really lucky the odd book, but mentioning poetry was almost social suicide.

I realised then that the world was full of perfectly well-educated adults, who bought books and even read them, but who would never even think to glance at the poetry shelf in Waterstones. Somehow, even though their schooling had included verse, it had completely passed them by as something to read later in life. If they remembered anything at all from their school experience it was probably with regret or confusion. That seemed such a waste to me, so I set about writing a book specifically for metrophobes, to show them what they’ve been missing.

Roz I wonder why that is? I have a theory, though I can’t know if it applies to anyone but me. Here goes. I might be about to make an idiot of myself.

At school I studied TS Eliot and although I found his work haunting, it was more because of its linguistic novelty than its meaning. It was like breathing an unusual kind of air, but not something that spoke deeply to me. Now I’m much older, I feel I understand more of it – and I’m probably closer to the life experiences that brought it out of Eliot in the first place. At the age of 15, though, I couldn’t possibly be.

I think there’s a lot of poetry that comes from an older place that we maybe need to catch up to. Perhaps that’s also a case for giving poetry a second try when we’ve lived a little.

Joe As I was writing the book, I realised that it was also culturally very timely. I think we’re still barely coming to terms with the devastating impact technology has had on the way we now use language, in every area of cultural life. If I was teaching English today I would be very concerned to study the way technology has changed language use. It’s a bit like a binary weapon. The screen or the phone by itself is perfectly harmless, but combine it with a bit of social media software and all hell breaks loose. When you know a lot about poetry, at least you know how to defend yourself.

Roz Some examples?

Joe I think the entire concept of a ‘hate’ crime has come about this way. People have learned that technology allows them to weaponise individual words and that’s much more powerful than debate and argument which takes time, effort and intelligence. Politicians have weaponised that word ‘hate’. One of the things I was surprised by when I first left teaching for business (and a lot of my work was with technology) was the way some people genuinely thought less always means more. I’d find myself quietly thinking, ‘But some ideas actually require quite a lot of words, in quite complex structures’. I’ve done a lot of commercial bid writing for businesses and it’s funny how few realise it’s all about the quality of the writing. I once scored 7 marks for a question with a maximum possible score of 6. A US business employed me as ‘lead writer’ a few months ago because they actually got that.

It would be easy to embark on a list of examples from the murky world of identity and gender politics, but politics has never interested me; words do. Not only are they our only internal means of understanding anything, apart from touch and maybe music, they are our only external form of human currency. Everything we exchange with others, our closest family members and our fiercest public opponents, is priced in words.

Examples aren’t difficult to find. Choose the wrong word as an academic and you may find yourself denied both your right to free speech and a speaking engagement. Tweet or post one wrong word on Instagram or Facebook, even if you’re a teenager just getting to grips with the world and with words, and you may find yourself being interviewed by the police and banned from a platform, accused, tried and found guilty in not much longer than it took to type the offending word. Never mind that you sincerely thought you knew what the word means, or that the employee of the social media business who has to make the decision to ban you, will themselves have the reading age of a 12-year-old and be working from a checklist. Use a wrong word about your latest young adult novel and it will never see the light of day and fans will be demanding your apology. Reading poetry prepares and protects you from this. You know all the tricks, or at least many of them, because great poets are also great inventors.

Roz Final question. Do you write poetry yourself?

Joe Definitely not. I experimented a little when I was a lot younger but quickly recognised this was a skill I simply didn’t possess. I did once successfully write a few poems which you could read left to right or right to left, thinking that was really original and clever. A few years ago I came across a small modern volume of verse by a little-known poet, in which every poem could be read in either direction. They weren’t much good.

You can find Joe on Twitter @joenutt_author and on his Facebook page. The Point of Poetry is available from Amazon.

PS If you’re curious about what I’ve been up to, while furrowing my brow over volumes of poetry, here’s the latest edition of my newsletter.

 

Also… my Nail Your Novel Workbook is now available as an ebook! Meanwhile, do you have any questions you’d like to ask Joe or favourite poems to share? Let’s discuss.

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How do I develop something special in my writing?

special in writingI’ve had this great question from Lindsey Maguire:

I’m a 15-year-old high school student whose biggest dream is to be a writer. I’m a good writer, but there’s nothing special about my writing. I was wondering how I could start to practise my skills and to become better over time? How did you start off? Also, I have absolutely no idea how to start a novel, even though I’ve tried for years 🙂

What a lovely question. Let’s tackle it in stages.

It can’t be rushed

First of all, don’t be in a hurry. Styles don’t develop overnight. They soak into you from your reading. Which leads me to…

What are you reading?

You also mentioned in your email that you read a lot, but how varied is your diet? Are you sticking to just a few genres, eras, styles of writing? These will colour the way you express yourself and may limit you if you don’t cast the net as wide as possible.

As well as fiction, read poetry, and notice how words are more than just their literal meaning. Become fussy about nuance, moods, resonances, flavours; the mischief in ‘twinkle’ versus the hard edge of its cousin ‘glitter’. Relish the variety our language gives you.

Learn what you are made of

So how will you be distinctive?

Like analysing a compound in a chemistry lab, we learn what we’re made of from the things we react to.

What are the styles you like and why do you like them? Ditto for themes, characters, settings. Do you like the unconventional? Is there a genre that pushes your buttons (I’ll include literary fiction here for the sake of argument)? These will become part of your writerly signature.

When you’re with friends, notice what’s distinctive about the way they talk and think. How is that different from you?

Here’s another point. What do you want to do to readers? Unsettle them, amuse them, tie their brains in knots, awaken their political awareness, warm their hearts, chill their marrow, stir them with ambiguities, distil the human experience, resolve their troubles? All of these? These intentions – whether in an article, short story or a book – will be a hallmark of your style.

Try lots of ideas

Every now and again you’ll discover someone who blows a hole through your idea of what good writing is. Let it tenderise you to new influences; soak it up and see what it shows you. Try to emulate it, if you’re so inclined. It doesn’t mean you were wrong until this moment. Mimic their rhythms, their sentence structure, the types of things they would notice. Enjoy the workout. After a while your new passion will wear off and you’ll regain a sense of proportion. That doesn’t mean you’re lost again. You’ll have added a few genes to your writerly DNA.

How long does it take?

Our style develops through our lives. Some writers become distinctive early. Others blossom later.

Most of us don’t stop wishing we were a bit more special, or perfect. Every year, we might think we’ve finally ‘found it’ and chafe at the work we can’t undo.  Evelyn Waugh often said he thought Brideshead Revisited was gluttonously overwrought.

le moulin 286Yours truly: how did I start off?

I started by apeing other writers I adored. As a teenager, any good book would send me scurrying to my room to try a new voice or story style. My typewriter got a lot of exercise. After college, I began to try novels and I went through a very visible (to me) Graham Greene phase, then Vita Sackville West, then Jack Vance, then Gavin Maxwell. When I read those writers I could think of no more perfect way to express a story.

One day I realised I didn’t feel I had to imitate any more. I could write as me and that was okay. That doesn’t mean I am no longer poleaxed by Graham, Gavin, Jack or Vita, or all the other thousands of writers in whose company I take pleasure. I still learn from them, all the time. But I no longer feel the need to eradicate and start again.

Honesty

This is personal, but for me, special writers have a quality of honesty on the page. It makes me comfortable in their company; willing to travel with them, to accept their voice as the companion to my own thoughts. Read good non-fiction and notice how authors do this, how they burrow for the truth even while they amplify, assert or exaggerate. Three of my favourites for this are Verlyn Klinkenborg, David Sedaris and Gavin Maxwell (I told you I liked him). Aim for that candid quality in your own work, even when you’re trying on other tics and techniques.

nyn soloAnd finally… how do you start a novel?

Some people just plunge in and write, muddle their way along. Clearly that hasn’t worked for you. In which case, are you looking to prepare material before you write? I have a book that will guide you through… (all together now…): Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix & Finish With Confidence… (now recommended by university creative writing departments, which is nice)

 

What would you tell Lindsey? Let’s discuss!

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‘Music dark and soulful; rural and tough’ – Dave Malone, The Undercover Soundtrack

for logoMy guest this week is best known for his poetry collections, but has had a weakness for crime fiction ever since he was a 10-year-old, smuggling a radio to bed to catch Mystery Theater. Music – and a few fingers of bourbon – were his close companions when writing his first novelet Not Forgiven, Not Forgotten. The Hank Dogs made the main character a dark angel in a corrupt town. Billie Holiday stopped the romance getting too sweet. He is Dave Malone and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘Neon, nostalgia, regret and joy’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Dan Holloway

for logoAnother familiar face this week – one of the first Soundtrack contributors returns with a new poetry collection. i cannot bring myself to look at walls in case you graffiti them with love poetry, which you’ll notice is be-eecummingly lower case. It’s a lyrical, heartbreaking, but ultimately joyous celebration of lost friends – with prog-rock tendencies. In a subversive nod to pink-hearts week, Dan Holloway is on the Red Blog with his latest Undercover Soundtrack.

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Stuck or blocked? How to keep writing anyway

2558534957_b675fe77a3You’ve got a gap in your story. Or you’re revising and it’s clear a drafted scene won’t do.

Usually, the best remedy is to give up and do something else.

But Charlotte Rains Dixon reminded me in a comment here a few weeks ago that sometimes it’s good to push through. Even if you’ve run the tank dry. And sometimes deadlines mean you don’t have the luxury of a break.

Here are some ways I get my muse to pick up.

Seek inspiration

Behind your pesky page there’s a seductive internet. And you’re sitting there, annoyed with the way your creative day is going.

Do not open your browser. Surfing turns so easily into skiving.

If I’m trying to break a block I go to my reference bookshelf. Not the dictionaries, although The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought can provide a surprise or two. But beside these sensible titles I have a collection of oddities that friends have given me (probably because it’s easier than guessing what fiction to give a fussy novelist). Thus I am the lucky owner of Never Hit A Jellyfish With a Spade – How to Survive Life’s Smaller Challenges. The Z to Z of Great Britain. And Mirror Mirror on the Wall – Women Writers Explore Their Favourite Fairy Tales.  Any of these, consulted at random, can provide a wild card to astonish the imagination.

Poetry collections are handy too, to remind me to look beyond the surface for deeper significance. Especially if I’m asking myself if I’ve missed the real reason why a scene or event has to be in the book.

nynfiller2Diagnose the problem

It also helps to define a few parameters.

  • Work out what can’t happen – both for this individual story and for the readers of your genre as a whole. Then you know where you should be heading.
  • Ask yourself what matters in the scene. Why it’s important to the story and to the characters. (If it’s not, job done.)
  • Quite often if you’re stuck, your brain is telling you you’re trying to write the wrong thing. Are you forcing the characters to say and do things they would find unnatural? Should you listen to what they would rather do?
  • Are you stuck because the scene repeats an idea you’ve used elsewhere in the book? Now you know to make it different.
  • Are there hidden significances or issues you’re glossing over? That ‘stuck’ feeling might be your helpful writerly subconscious telling you you’re wasting an opportunity.

Still stuck? Push on anyway

Now this is what Charlotte was talking about. Write anyway. Yes it works. Sometimes you’ll be surprised by what comes out. It’s like having an interrogator refusing to let go.

‘What happens now?’

‘Bah, I don’t know.’

‘That’s not good enough, I don’t believe you don’t know. Tell me again – what happens now?’

When I do this, my first attempts are risible, and I keep deleting. But after a while I find the scent. I’ve often resorted to this in revisions, and written some of my best scenes because I stayed stubbornly in the saddle.

Desperate measures

You could follow the lead of science fiction author A E Van Vogt. When he was stuck, he would move to the spare room for the night and set the alarm to wake him after an hour and a half. When it went off, he would force himself to try to solve the problem, inevitably falling back asleep. He repeated this all night and in the morning, voila.

Which just goes to show what it can be like living with a writer sometimes. You can find other less unsociable tips in Nail Your Novel. 🙂

Thanks for the cat pic turkeychik

Tell me what you do when you get stuck and time off isn’t an option. Share in the comments!

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The long and the short of writing novels – guest spot at Beyondaries

beyondHow long does it take to write a novel? Years, months, a Nanowrimosecond? I’m riffing on this idea today at Beyondaries, the ezine of Port Yonder Press.

Port Yonder is one of those publishers whose remit I could have written myself. It looks for strong, original crossover books with award-winning potential. In charge is managing editor Chila Woychik, who recruited for her ezine a bunch of writers who like their rules thoroughly bent and kicked.

Among the other contributors is Dan Holloway, who often stops here with a challenging take on whatever I’m talking about. His video is about the music of words. Also at Beyondaries you’ll find Shannon Elizabeth Hardwick talking about finding poetry in the everyday, and Grace Bridges comparing Witi Ihimaera to Doctor Who. And of course, Chila herself on the stubborn, self-driven qualities that mark out a true creative.

If you fancy a trip beyond the usual, pull up at Beyondaries.

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‘I look for clever, lyrical music with a twinge of melancholy’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Catherynne M Valente

‘Music and fairyland go hand in hand’ writes my Undercover Soundtrack guest this week. After cueing up her playlist I can assure you this fairyland is not just rich and strange, but funky, cheeky, cheesy, sassy, riotous, ridiculous and whimsical. It’s hardly surprising then that her novels and poetry have been nominated for numerous awards, including the Mythopoeic, the Lambda, the Hugo, Locus, World Fantasy, and Nebula. Deeply fond of writing to music, she’s also closed the musical circle by inspiring three albums by singer/songwriter S.J. Tucker. She is Catherynne M Valente, and she’s over on the Red Blog talking about The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making.

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Repetition – a two-ended hammer

We all have words and phrases we unintentionally use too often. They’re very conspicuous to readers – and virtually invisible to us.

One of the best proofing tricks – reading your work aloud – won’t necessarily help you spot repetition. A passage that irks on the page may seem satisfyingly emotive when read out loud.

(What’s more, you might even cheat, imagining different stress as you vocalise your prose, thus fooling yourself there is no need to change anything… Yes, I know the tricks.)

So how do you tackle it?

It helps to know where the danger areas are.

Redundant words

Look for the modifying words that don’t need to be there. Just, suddenly, actually, very, effectively, eagerly – these are frequently overused in an attempt to emphasise or add a different quality to a verb, but it would be better to find a more precise verb or description.

Overused verbs

Certain verbs are easily overused too. Feel, see, think, supposed, hoped, wanted, tried all flow from our fingers without hesitation, or while our mind is on the hundred other things we need to juggle in a scene. But they usually have much truer alternatives.

Try Wordle

A good way to spot your own verbal tics is Wordle. You can dump an entire novel into it (and honestly it will cope) and you’ll get a pretty – and alarming snapshot of your lazy words. And if you’ve got a few pet interesting verbs that appear too often with no justification, it will make you aware of those too. (Hold onto that thought of repetition being justified; we’re coming back to it later.)

Using a thesaurus does not make you a dinosaur

We hear a lot of disapproving noises about Roget’s tome. What folks are objecting to is:

1 very obscure words

2 synonyms swapped in indiscriminately with no feel for connotation or rhythm.

To which I answer:

1 the thesaurus has ordinary words too – all of them

2 if you’re staring down an unbearable repetition and your mind is blank, where else are you going to find a better option?

I use the thesaurus all the time when editing, to remind me that more precise, more exciting options exist than the first word I thought of. I also use poetry, to encourage me to reach beyond the literal. (That might suit your genre, it might not. But Roget suits everyone’s.)

Repetition – the good side

Repetition gets a bad rap because it’s usually a sign of unpolished writing. But it can be a powerful tool. Because it’s so noticeable ­- which of course is why it irritates – it can emphasise and echo.

It’s good if you have characters with distinctive phrases, or you want to intentionally echo a scene or a feeling. It’s especially good to underline themes and images, creating the sense of an ordering web that’s holding the book together. A repetition with well judged variation can send readers loopy with satisfaction – look at Richard Adams’s Watership Down, which opens with the line ‘The primroses were over’ and closes ‘The primroses had just begun.’

Use with a light touch

Readers are wired to be detectives. All readers are trying to fathom which characters they should look at, what the story is really about, what the moral and physical rules are. They look for and latch onto patterns, even if they’re not aware they are doing so. Repetition is one of those, and we need to be exquisitely tuned to it, use it deliberately and with care.

Thanks for the pics CarbonNYC and sim, youn jim

What’s your feeling about repetition? Do you have any tips for spotting it? And any lovely examples of where it works well?

And have you any idea how few viable synonyms there are for ‘repetition’?

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Writing literary fiction – podcast and video interview with Joanna Penn

Today – roughly 24 hours ahead of schedule if you saw the note on the red blog – I’m at Joanna Penn’s online home, The Creative Penn. Joanna’s one of my favourite podcasters and her interviewees run the gamut of book marketing specialists to fiction authors to creativity consultants to anyone else you never knew you needed to know. A recent podcast of hers is on how to write fight scenes – which is cued up on my Creative Muvo to accompany my run today. (If you meet me, don’t get in my way.)

Earlier this year, when she was writing her best-selling religious thriller Pentecost, she interviewed me about my book Nail Your Novel. Now she’s invited me back to quiz me about writing My Memories of a Future Life – and we discuss the differences between literary and genre fiction, developing characters, using research and honing prose style. We also laughed rather a lot.

You can read a text summary, listen to a podcast, or even watch us on video. Whatever your pleasure, come and join us for a jolly discussion.

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I’m in Everything

I’ve been interviewed today at a blog called Everything. Everything is the online home of Chila Woychik, writer, poet, outspoken blogger and mistress of an empty dungeon because she takes no prisoners.  Her collection of lyric essays and poetic memoir On Being A Rat will debut on Amazon on 3 October. One early reviewer writes:  ‘Her prose sings; her poetry plants tactile, unforgettable images in your mind:  “My tongue boils cold – it licked a star – .”

Chila (pronounced Sheila) also has her own publishing imprint, Port Yonder Press. What’s she looking for? The excellent, the evocative, the eclectic. If that’s you, go and say hi.

She also likes nifty boots, which can’t be bad. What do we talk about? Writing, of course. Englishness. Nothing and everything.

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