Loose Muse Winchester – Anthology

It’s a bit of cliche to say that writing is a solitary, often lonely occupation. And yet, the stereotypical banality of the phrase cannot hide the truth: most of us who write do so in semi-secret, snatching part of a lunch break on one day, forgoing several hours of sleep on another, plotting novels when we’re walking the dog, and planning poems while we shiver on the touchlines of a child’s Saturday morning sports club. There is always, it seems, something else to do that’s more worthy of one’s time. Indeed, all the secrecy and shuffling of commitments can make it easy to forget that writing is also something to be celebrated and shared.

This is not too difficult if you have a book deal or you’re a widely-read journalist – but it can seem like ascending Everest on skis if you’re anybody else. Fortunately, this is where events like Loose Muse can help.

The original Loose Muse, established by poet Agnes Meadows, is a London-based event, held at the Poetry Cafe. London’s only regular event for women writers, it still runs according to its original format: two women writers have 15-20 minutes to read from, and discuss, their work, and the rest of the time is devoted to an open mic session for audience members.

In 2015, Agnes asked poet Sue Wrinch to set up a Winchester branch of Loose Muse – and it’s thrived. Around two dozen regulars and many more occasional visitors have enjoyed readings by the likes of poets Liz Berry, Sarah Howe, Jo Bell, Helen Mort, Tania Hershman and Kim Moore, and authors Claire Fuller, Sarah Mussi and Claire Dyer.  The open mic is also always extremely popular. One of the best things about it is seeing all sorts of people grow in confidence as they share their work – poetry, flash fiction and, if time allows, the occasional short story – with the audience. It’s friendly, supportive and, if the cafe’s open, there’s even wine to help wash away any lingering nerves.

Sue has now taken Loose Muse Winchester to the next stage with the publication of an anthology featuring poems from many of those who’ve read in the open mic over the last three years. Supported by Winchester City Council, and edited by Sue and poet Abegail Morley, the anthology is a joy – and I’m very proud to have three of my favourite poems in it: In Birkenhead Park, Panthera Pardus and Moonwalk. In Birkenhead Park also features on Abegail Morley’s The Poetry Shed.

We celebrated the launch last night with champagne and readings. The anthology is available to buy from Sue at Loose Muse events. It’s also on sale at Winchester’s own independent bookstore, P&G Wells, and will be for sale at the forthcoming Winchester Poetry Festival.

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In praise of libraries

I heard from an old colleague last week. While we were both still at what many of its staff called “the Mothership”, we occasionally used to pass a slow morning discussing what we intended to do in our next lives. I wanted to write and she wanted to read. ‘All day, on a chaise longue,’ she’d say. ‘A yellow velvet one, under an open window, with a tree right outside.’ Although we agreed that yellow, at least where velvet was concerned, probably wasn’t the most practical colour, she was immovable on the idea of the piece of furniture itself. We also agreed that I probably wouldn’t ever make a living as a creative writer just as she was unlikely to pay the bills from horizontal on a peculiarly decorative sofa. However, I hoped I might be able to supplement stewing over novels and poetry with freelance writing, while she thought that working in a library or bookshop were appealing ideas.

Some years later, after we’d both left, she emailed me a picture of a chaise longue in a sort of dark mustard colour (much more attractive than it sounds). ‘This is mine,’ she wrote. ‘I like to lie here and read when I get home from the library.’ Actually, I don’t suppose she did as much lying and reading as she’d planned; anyone who reckons small children are conducive to that sort of relaxation is either lying or delusional. Anyway, she loved that library.

She worked hard at it too. The hours varied over a fortnightly shift pattern – an all too common childcare challenge – and some nights she was still there long after her children’s bedtime. However the variety, she said, made it worth it. It wasn’t just book-shelving, issuing fines and checking out books; it was recommending titles, writing reviews for the library’s blog, running story time, dressing up for special events, organising computer classes, art classes, a writing workshop……a whole series of activities designed to help a community function as both a cohesive whole and a group of individuals.

Lonely people came to chat, new mothers turned up to drink coffee, to cry and to make new friends under the safe pretence that their six-week old needed to learn both words and actions to We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, students used the large, well-lit tables as a study base and job-seekers wrestled with the Sisyphean requirements of the DWP on the public computers. I’m sure they were all welcomed with a smile.

I’m a library-lover myself. I can’t remember my first visit (to the large stone Birkenhead Central Library, grand as any stately home – and now under on-going threat of closure) but I know the early years of story time soon segued into hours reading everything the children’s library had to offer. An omnivorous reader, I made little distinction between classic, contemporary and even, oh the horror, American high school stories (hello Sweet Dreams and Sweet Valley High). The joy, though, of being given an adult library card! Suddenly I could take out eight books rather than four, and I did so every week. Even now, almost thirty years later, I can still remember some of the books and authors I first discovered in that huge curved room of other worlds. There was Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel, Dora Shafe’s Miss Read novels, Violette Szabo in Carve Her Name With Pride (which led me  on to read an entire shelf on the Special Operations Executive), David Attenborough’s Zoo Quest; the list, truly, is too long for a single blog post.

My library use at university was more utilitarian but, one day, breaking away from the law library, I went to the section of the Stacks used by the English department, and discovered that Sylvia Plath had written diaries – and they had actually been published! I read and I read.

Then came the ancient and beautiful library of the Inner Temple, the well-resourced libraries of a City law firm and, by now accompanied by a squirming, often screaming and always sleepless infant, the surprising spaces of the Barbican library. I loved them all in their own ways.

Nowadays I spend a good deal of my leisure time at my current local library: Winchester’s Discovery Centre. Note the name. Library is no longer good enough in this multi-purpose age of ours. Libraries have to be about more than books and, indeed, mine manages this with consummate skill.  Not only do my children and I read its books, we go to plays and concerts there, we attend workshops and exhibitions, and eat in its café. One of the highlights of my month is Winchester’s Loose Muse poetry night, run by the esteemable Sue Wrinch, where I’ve had the good fortune to hear Liz Berry, Jo Bell, Kim Moore and Sarah Howe amongst many equally talented others. There’s also the Winchester Poetry Festival, which makes good use of the library building. We would all be so much the poorer without our library.

And my friend, my old colleague, feels the same about her library, which now faces closure. The only way it seems some vestige of it can be saved for its community is for all the staff to lose their jobs and their positions to be replaced by volunteers. To say my friend is sad is too simplistic. She wants to keep her job – needs it – but she wants the library too.

I don’t want to get into the political side of this. I could say a lot about how I feel about the voluntary sector stepping in to cover what the State once assumed responsibility for but I shan’t. It’s not fair to my friend, to her library or her community. I hope they find a solution that works for as many people as possible. A library is too important to be lost.

On words and ears and why I write

One of the questions every writer faces sooner or later is, ‘Why am I doing this?’ Plenty of us tell ourselves, oh, I write for myself; it doesn’t matter if anyone else reads it but if this isn’t exactly a lie, it’s perhaps only a half-truth. Very little makes me admire a writer more than when they stand up to be counted, so to speak, and admit that, actually, they write to be read. Interestingly, I’ve noticed that it tends to be published – and often very successfully so – writers who are brave enough to say as much out loud (although perhaps this is because these writers have less fear of people pointing and laughing or, worse, ignoring them altogether).

Of course traditional print media is not the only way for writers to be heard. Oral storytelling is far older than the written word and, while it has rather lost its place in the western world, it has its successors. Mind you, some forms of writing lend themselves rather better to oral performance than others. Few people would sit through a recital of even a novella but a play is another matter. And the long history of poetry recital is increasingly being supplemented with flash fiction. Years ago I engaged in the quaint-sounding pursuit of “Speech and Drama”, which mostly consisted of reciting – from memory and with appropriate theatrics – a variety of poetry. As a somewhat melancholic teen, I spent far too much time perfecting my performance of several of Sylvia Plath’s “Ariel” collection. It did gain me a Poetry Society gold medal for spoken poetry after a performance at the Central School of Speech and Drama, during which my grandmother had an angina attack (hopefully unconnected), and also prompted me to plough onwards with my own highly derivative poetry collection (long since consigned to the loft for future generations to squirm uncomfortably over or rats and pigeons to use as nesting material).

The idea of performing my own materials in public had not really occurred to me until a friend of mine – a published novelist – reminded me that it was doing readings of her short stories at the local library that pushed her onwards with her creative writing several years ago now. When that same library, in Winchester, started to host an evening called “Loose Muse“, I read the promotional materials with interest. Started in 2005 by Agnes Meadows, Loose Muse, whose home venue is London’s Poetry Café, aims to provide a supportive environment for women writers of all genres to come together, share their work and learn from each other. As well as providing an opportunity for new and upcoming writers, it also showcases more established ones. For example, I was delighted to hear the award-winning poet Rhian Edwards perform (ukulele and all) and subsequently to enjoy the Family Matters tour, performed by the poet/writers Agnes Meadows, Patricia Foster, Janett Plummer and, in absentia, Linda Shanovitch.

I actually only intended to go along as moral support for a friend who’d been asked to perform one of her comedic short stories in the guest slot but she persuaded me to take along one of my poems in case there was space in the “open mic” slots at the end of the evening. There was – and I read “At Pine Ridge”, published last year in Synaesthesia magazine. The second time I went, I was braver and read something new that I have yet to submit anywhere. It got positive feedback, which has encouraged me to think about to where I might send it but, more importantly, it sparked a conversation among several of the people sitting near me. It’s a poem about early motherhood and everyone near me, including the 80 year-old lady who’d read a magnificent ballad about Queen Eleanor, had something to say or to recall on the topic. It’s a good feeling when something you’ve written engages so many other people and makes what I said in my first sentence above seem only a quarter-truth. Perhaps, after all, writing to spark a reaction in others is what counts…..