Category Archives: emma press

For writers starting out. Do comment, discuss and contribute your thoughts!

I know there are a lot of people out there writing books and a lot of people submitting said books at the moment. I know or have met people who now have stunning commercial success, writers who are agented but yet to have their first book sold, those who work with the small presses and who are not agented, those who are what we might call a hybrid (I am thinking this is likely to be me) – by which I mean agented but also finding publication routes on their own, perhaps with a small press, those who are disconsolate because everything is a flat rejection or they have received no answer at all and those – including recent MA in Creative Writing students – who are, for various reasons, too scared to submit at all. That’s just for starters.

It might come quickly; it could take years. I do think the key thing is not to take rejection personally (while accepting that, maybe, you need to write a different book if nobody at all is biting); also, if you are floored by rejection and delay and disappointment, then this might not be for you. And that, OF COURSE, is fine. Because there is a life beyond writing.

Here’s where I am. I started writing a book, Killing Hapless Ally, a novel, which originally began life as a memoir, in July of 2014; by the 1st of May, 2015 it had a publisher and it was published in March 2016 by the small press, Patrician. I only sent this manuscript to five agents; two rejected it, three didn’t reply at all. I read an article about the press in ‘Mslexia’ magazine and I liked the sound of it, corresponded with its charismatic founder and there we go. I was, I should add, realistic about how visible the book would be, but I have relished the experience and, ever since, the bonds I have made with its readers. Is it a bestseller? Good God no, but it has been important to its readers and the engagement I have had with them has been life changing. With Patrician, to whom I now feel rather bonded, I also published a poem in Anthology of Refugees and Peacemakers (just back from an event at Essex Book Festival on that) and will be co-editor of next year’s anthology, My Europe and editor of its Tempest, which is a book, by various authors, on (Trump) America. And my poetry has been published by the brilliant indie Emma Press, too.

Way leads on to way.

Meanwhile, I spread my wings and wrote another book, a novella, The Life of Almost. I began sending this out before Christmas 2016. I’m a quick worker, apparently. Two agent rejections (one the day I sent it!), three small press rejections (but read on for that and for more on agents), waiting on two further presses and an agent so still out on submissions. BUT during this process, another agent had read a section from Killing Hapless Ally and admired my writing; said agent asked me to send what I was currently working on (as in, The Life of Almost) in partial then in full; told me they thought I was a brilliant writer but that this book was not, though they admired much about it, for them. To their taste, for example, it needed more pace. But I had also told them about my plans for the next book (I actually have four more books sketched out: is that crazy sounding?) and the agent asked me to send them the full manuscript for that as soon as it was ready because they absolutely loved its concept. This was my third text, Passerines.

Meanwhile, one of the other agents told me (having read three chapters of Almost) about how they loved my writing style. That there was much to like; it was innovative and compelling but in the end the book was not right for them. Keep sending! And of the three small presses who rejected me, one said that though they would not be taking this one, they were confident it would be placed and would I send them future work? The other told me there was some lovely writing and they were impressed, but that this text was simply too innovative for them and, on that basis, they would simply not be able to shift enough copies to make it financially viable. I do know that the small presses – whom I adore and champion, by the way – are often those who DO champion the innovative book, but clearly that is not always the case.

So you see, there’s a lot of encouragement in that pile, just as there is a lot of rejection. The rejection is part of the experience and of the learning.

I have almost finished my third novel. So that’s three books – from the first word, I mean – in three years and this is not my day job. I run a a company, teach, have three young boys and I’m a volunteer and mental health advocate, too.  I don’t have a great deal of time so I’ve got to want to do this.

Do you? Take your time and don’t give up.

I may not have hit a super stellar advance just yet and obviously I may never, but I am playing a long game. May those who find later books go back and read my first, for example. We are three years in and I have met so many fascinating people, read hundreds of books – I read a great deal anyway, but I am so much more alive to different presses and sources of reading; it has been such an adventure. I’ve made a film about mental health, presented at a literary festival, had a packed book launch at a wonderful bookshop, spoken to, had dinner with, corresponded with, interviewed and had my work read by – it is happening now – writers whom I admire. I’ve also published poetry and articles and guest blogged. To boot, I think I am a better teacher because I am a better reader and writer and what is more I am able to share my work with students. Right now, I am commissioning those in years 10-13 to write for the two anthologies I have mentioned and, through my company, I felt inspired to set up a year-long bursary so that I could help someone who had had – this is the icing on the cake for me – long term mental health problems (as I have had myself) to evolve and complete a creative writing project.

So that’s where I am now. In the peculiar position of having one book out on subs and another being waited for and…without giving too much away…being discussed. At the weekend I had an offer of publication for my second book, but I am taking my time.

And now I have to make the tea because the kids keep coming in and rooting through the cupboards. Not having the time forces me to write when and as I can and I mull at other times, which I also regard as working. If you wait for your perfect writing environment or space or time, it may never happen. So why not write something tonight and get started – even if it’s just a paragraph?

Do tell me about your experience and about how you are getting on.

Anna.

Killing Hapless Ally: Patrician Press (2016)

The Life of Almost (TBA!) and Passerines (ditto)

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The Life of Almost,a breathless Killing Hapless Ally and choosing your ending.

I have written a strange little second book. I suspect I will always write strange books. Big ones and little ones. The first, Killing Hapless Ally, was placed with a small press. As such, it is not, naturally, going to fall into so many hands. And yet and yet…I cannot tell you how rewarding it has been to discuss the book with its readers.

I know it is a challenging book; it is busy and breathless and constantly allusive. It is a work of fiction, but this rush through a history, through a mind, was deliberate. Its publisher understood and supported this; loved its density and fragmenting quality: its form was part of the effect, you might say. But to other readers it will be too busy, appear too dense and poorly edited. I took a risk – and my hope with Killing Hapless Ally was always that this was a long game. What I wanted was to write at least a book a year; to establish a catalogue and, gradually, for more and more people to find it.

But back to the discussion with readers. It has been read by people suffering from mental health problems and those who seek to understand what they might look like – as such, I have had many raw and challenging conversations about the book. It has been read by psychologists and academics – very recently, one who feels it will be instructive in their work, in addition to finding it entertaining. It is, after all, a black comedy! But at the moment the thing I really like is that some of my older students are reading it, which has meant that I felt I should mention to parents the book’s graphic content. It does not flinch in its illustration of depression, anxiety, self harm, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts. I am laying myself bare here, aren’t I? But you see, there is a foreword to the book which reads rather like a mission statement. The book is based on episodes in my own life; to my mind it reads like a memoir, rather than a novel (again, this hybrid will irritate some readers because they do not recognise the novel form in it – more on which another day) and, in telling a/my story, I said that if I were not upfront about the mental health problems I have suffered from repeatedly since childhood, then that would be “to do a disservice to those who are yet to recover or find appropriate help.”

Now, back to that second book. The Life of Almost. Who is he and what is he? Is he alive or dead? What is his purpose? Well I like ambiguity and grey areas. If a book promises a twist at the end, you can bet I’ll have guessed it on page three; I’m that sucky person who shouts out the answers not long after it starts, which is why I am bound to silence when watching films  or telly with my husband. Like a kid at panto. “It’s binary and he’s the ghost!” (Interstellar.) “It’s his sister and I bet Moriarty’s helping her!” (Sherlock Holmes). I’m happy to know the ending or not to have things promised to me. Anyway, The Life of Almost has, at present, two different endings. Casuistry. Pick one. “What do you want? What do you expect?”, to quote Owl Eyes in the library in The Great Gatsby. And also, because the book is also a reworking of Dickens’s Great Expectations, the two ending recall what happened with that book, a note of explanation being underneath. I think I can get away with setting text out here. If the book gets commissioned, this bit of the blog post might have to go!

But you know – this is relevant, I promise! –  I am struggling at the moment: depression, sadness, they have the better of me; I wake, frightened, at night; I start at noise: my mind races, thoughts collide and crash and back come the hauntings of early experience. I cannot bear bright light or loud sound; sometimes, I hear sounds when they are not there, a constant auditory disturbance; sometimes music, often quotation. This has always been a feature. No-one’s experience of depression or mental health problems is quite the same. Mine is jangling and mult-coloured; fast fast slow. But I can do this. I CAN. There is no miracle. I rebuild my mind with books and thought and friends.

I have to say that I can choose an ending here because an ending is also a beginning, isn’t it? As Dorothy Rowe would tell you, “Even the worst day does not last forever.”

Casuistry. Which ending, for Seren and Almost, would you rather? The other person in the text is Catherine, who begins the book. And it is Catherine who begins summer 2016 in a state of welling despair. That is why Almost appears, from the sea-coast, off-world, whatever you like (as I said, I like ambiguity) to begin a bitter magic.

Here.

Pick.

‘The two endings, Catherine. Listen and choose. I begin with a poem. For her. Everything is for her.

If I should fall, then say to me the reason clouds form as they are,

Why ice should seed along a scratch, why I should love my six point star.

I do not know or care to see the smiles that fall in brazen line,

But innocence and clearest eye embolden me to make her mine.

I speak of love and quiet worlds, the county town on winter nights:

The sweets of honey bees, a view of ruby sky and amber lights—

A mermaid Terpsichore, sand-snow, auroras made of rosy glow,

My Borealis blood-red sheenif I should fall, then make me know.

When I am not and you are here, beholden to this dusty room,

Be gentle with the tenuous forms of memory; do not grieve too soon.

Consider thiswhy should we be, ephemeral and urgent? How?

And speak to me with confidence, declaim for me on cliff or prow.

In nature’s fragile frame I see a world that lives beyond the hill,

Beyond the log pile, salt and shed; behind our eyes when we lie still.

And when I fall, then say to me you read its language, pure and keen—

And set my records on my desk and light my lamp: make them be seen.

I met her out there. I felt her, thoughts carry: I always knew where she was. I walked beyond St David’s to look at the Blue Lagoon, turned back and walked and walked to Abereidy, then through the bluebell wood, by the mud and stream to the fierce mouth, Abermawr. Skimming stones into the sea, she was. Oh God, aflame. I could hardly stand her beauty. She saw me and walked slowly my way as I cupped a pebble and steadied my thoughts and tried to control my tears.

Seren. Star. Always her. A mermaid I trapped on land and who never forgave me.

She said this: ‘Boy. Always boy.’

I said, “Age does not wither her” though I knew I was lying and I saw I was fresher and new, still.

“Roland is dead. I am…I am different, Almost.”

Oh she wept and howled into and out of a fierce mouth and hurled the rocks across the breakers and I went to her and held her while she told me of her life with him; of the spite that held, the jokes that cracked and broke; resentments, brutal, scorning others just because they had a better boat; a finer cast of house or leg or anything. He hated the world and everyone in it, handsome damned man who had fooled her. I said, ‘I will find him dead and flay him for you, Seren, for you, my love’ and I meant it, brute like daddy, down under the sand in another sea and time. My howl was elemental; perverse. We clung to each other.

He, Roland, touched her wrong; he did not cradle her at night, not understand that her own beautiful scorn was from her pain, sea girl trapped, and if he had, what would it have mattered? He had her to set on his arm and place where he should and that was enough. He used her roughly; cursed her barren; not a mother, nor a soft gentle thing. He cast her out, within her home. I could not stand to hear it all and howled again and she clung and my God I cannot tell you how beautiful she was because it would be like…it would be like trying to beat the heart of a star with a warped broom; like lifting up prayers with dirty hands and biting mouths. That is something like it was.

We walked out through the woods and I gathered bluebells, pressed them upon her in a fever.

“Forgive me, Almost.”

“I already have” I said; I fell on my knees in the stream and mud and the bluebells were crushed with I and her and us together, tremendous.

Her heart was opened then. I saw it.

Afterwards, I took her hand and I knew that there would be no shadow of another parting from her. I thought, also, that one day we might find her garb, as for Derian out at Oystermouth; as for Miss Davies, somewhere in her wild garden, under the fingers of creeping moss and the care of the kind willow. There might, yet, be a way back to the sea. For her and, in growing magic or the charms of the englynion, because poems carry, for me.’

Chapter 17. Or a star dies

‘But then again, is this how it was? Catherine, do you prefer this ending?

I begin, as I often do, with a poem. This one is about endings, when we come to recognise they have arrived, that is.

So,

We climbed the downward spiral of the trail

To best the shedding fingers of the cliff;

I’d promised you, oh love, I could not fail—

I’d prove to you against our childish tiff

That there was treasure to be found that day—

Albescent moons to cradle in your hand—

Sea urchins fine, a little world to say:

Echinocardium, wanting to be grand.

But my world was not yours, you did not care

To hold the little lanterns in your palm—

The hollow globe within the greatest fair,

You did not care if such should come to harm.

So cracked the sea potato on the tide:

I knew, although I smiled, my love had died.

I knew where she was. I felt her. I walked there, out beyond St David’s, the lovely harbour at Abereiddy, turquoise of the Blue Lagoon, then through the bluebell woods to Abermawr. She knew I would find her, of course. Out there, hurling stones across the breakers and howling her pain. She did not stop me taking her in my arms, drawing time-stopping kisses from her. Too late, too late, though, Catherine.

For this is what happened.

Everything I said of Roland was true, but when he died, consumed by his own acid and pride, Seren married a quiet local man. Not rich, but comfortable, like, and they lived in a house looking out across Ramsey Sound. This is the road she had taken, my beautiful mermaid girl. And she had a child, too: how could I claim her now? Oh Catherine, do not laugh: she called the boy ‘Nearly’ and he was her joy. I could see that. How could I claim her now? She seemed old, though she was not, and greatly changed and sad.

What could I do? My heart was broken.

I reached down and picked up an auger shell, she cupped it in her hand with tears in her eyes and then she turned, picking her way across the pebble beach to the bluebell wood and she was gone.

And that is the ending, almost. Which ending did you prefer? Which shall we have? And really, all I want to ask you, Catherine is this: did any of this happen? Was any of it true? And am I really here, June two thousand and sixteen, in your kitchen. Now, what do you think?’

Then I wept, cried until I was dry, not comprehending the world. I felt his fingers brush my arm: electric. Then he was gone, too, and had ended his story.

An explanation of the two endings.

‘Because of the mystery and ambiguity of the book, the uncertainty of its endings, or rather that Catherine should have some choice in how it ends (including, I would say, in what she does about her own sorrow after Almost has passed on elsewhere), seemed fitting to me. But there is another reason. Great Expectations is very important to this book for The Life of Almost is at least a partial reworking of it and that book had its ending changed at the last moment. Edward Bulwer Foster, Dickens’s friend and a fellow novelist, had been keen that Pip and Estella were united at the end of the story. The account goes that Dickens felt his friend argued such a good case that he subsequently agreed to make a change. “I resolved…to make the change…I have put in as pretty a little piece of writing as I could and I have no doubt the story will be more acceptable through the alteration.” George Bernard Shaw published an edition of Great Expectations in a limited edition run with his preferred ending: the one Dickens had written first and which he argued was, in fact, “the truly happy ending.” Some have argued that this was a perverse argument, but I prefer the sobriety of the original and find it more fitting for the brooding, disillusioned narrative tone through the book. So,

“I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her.”

OR, the former, when Pip, walking along Picadilly, is told a lady in a carriage wishes to speak to him: it is Estella:

“…I was very glad afterwards to have had the interview; for, in her face and in her voice, and in her touch, she gave me the assurance, that suffering had been stronger than Miss Havisham’s teaching, and had given her a heart to understand what my heart used to be.”

But now, if you wouldn’t mind making tea and trimming up some Welshcakes but without a recipe and with one hand only, I shall offer you my last. Do you know that, sometimes, stories have two endings? Of course you do. In old books, sometimes the author wrote an ending that was too sad and his publisher demanded it more palatable; a triumph. Triumph is sometimes untrue, of course, but what would you like? What do you expect and how may I help?

Almost Derian Llewhellin, all time a room in which to roam.’

Anna Vaught, Wiltshire, two thousand and sixteen.

Epigraph of The Life of Almost

For Ned. Because Almost is also a love story: Seren, Mfanwy, Perfection, Mammy, the sacred headland and the mermaids. And you are my story and my song. x

This is what it says at the beginning of my next book, The Life of Almost: wish me luck, as it has gone, by kind request, out to an agent who liked the writing in Killing Hapless Ally; the ms has also gone to a press; later in October, it is going out elsewhere and, to my utter surprise, a really lovely person at one of, you know, the big five, said they would look at it just to be helpful. I said it wasn’t really, as far as I could see, a commercial proposition, but then it is the next story I had in me. I know it’s ambitious and I do know about Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs. Ah, but bear with now. This one now is comical, I hope; indebted to Dickens and to Dylan Thomas; to generations in Pembrokeshire and beyond; to the coffin hatch in my own house; to the dead, who are legion and all around; to mermaid lore; The Mabinogion; Celtic Magic, Gwyn Williams, Danny Abse, the earliest Welsh poems, the Southern Gothic I married, books on sex, embalming and death practice, John Donne and Dickens again. And don’t you want to know who or what Almost is? How mermaids love? Why a child was found sleeping on a headland gravestone? Why moss creeps and sucks at your feet as you dare to tread? How a love story happens over the embalming table and how Almost feels, when he meets Derian Llewhellin, both fear and happiness and a blurring of his edges and how it is he begins to understand what he is capable of. The story begins this squalid summer, June 2016, but oh…it is old, old, old.

 

THE LIFE OF ALMOST OR,

A LIFE OF VERY LITTLE EXPECTATION

Anna Vaught

Disclaimer: this is a work of fiction, I swear on The Mabinogion and the sacred headland. Characters in this book are fictional, although I have drawn upon the history of my own Welsh family and diaspora and many things which to me seem normal and maybe which, to you, do not. I make no apology for references to the political situation in the summer of 2016 while a cunning clown and cohorts and a tide of rage pushed through the always unexpected rain. Real places named in the book are at least partly fictionalised and the dead and undead are somewhat mixed up. But enough: don’t you want to know about Almost? He was mine; now I am giving him to you.

All poems (unless otherwise attributed, but out of copyright) are by the author.

Lewis, the Younger, who went away

When I was a kid, Lewis took his own life.

I heard them say he took it, but where it went,

I couldn’t say or wasn’t told. Perhaps it had

been drained, in The Sloop, with all his pints,

or thrown gladly off Stack Rocks with a shout

that he married well and was a man they liked,

but I don’t know. For once, though I was very young,

I saw a look from out the corner of his eye as he shipped

off, went laughing with the pot boys and his girl:

that look it said, I think, that Lewis wanted rescuing,

but no-one came, as the sea foam danced in Cardigan Bay.

“Look’ee here, Pip. I’m your second father. You’re my son—more to me nor any son.”

Abel Magwitch, Great Expectations, chapter thirty nine.

 

To keep going…

 

I am crying a little bit here. But read on. It’s fine, really.

Do you know, I am nominated several times for ‘The Guardian’ Not the Booker prize, I am entered for the Goldsmith’s Prize, the new Republic of Consciousness Prize and The Wellcome Book Prize. I also put in a poetry pamphlet for ‘Mslexia”s annual competition.

Do I have a shot? Naaah, not really.

Well, frankly, only a tiny one, at best.

I’m small fry; I’m a newbie and pretty unrefined, still. I blundered into this in the same naive way I have blundered into most things in my life! I sort of…had a go when theoretically it wasn’t supposed to be possible with all my other commitments. I’m a hard worker because, I think, I have had so much experience compromised by mental health problems, illness and bereavement that it has made me more imaginative and keen to seize the day in case we are hit by an asteroid or I go bonkers again (which I am not planning to, obviously). If this is you too, be collected; be encouraged: you would be amazed what is possible and at the way which can be made from no way and from despair.

AND SOMEHOW

In two years, I have written and published a novel, a poetry pamphlet, guest blogged, authored ten articles or so and at this point I am approximately two thirds of the way through a second novel and have poetry and short story publication this autumn and in the spring. So HOLY F*** three kids and a day job and the volunteer stuff. I have to keep going now, don’t I?

On, blunder on. xxx

Anna Vaught's photo.

‘Yes, Mfanwy: in the midst of life we are in death and here with the Dead Dears it is fair to say that we are in love.’

From The Life of Almost as I draft it…

  And there was another book that had only been seen by its owner.

Evans the Bodies wrote poems. Often for the Dead Dears who had no-one and whose lives must, he thought, be recorded for posterity. So the timid lady from the post office, who had customers and bread but no friends and a mother who would have tossed her out with the peelings for the pigs, became a cowslip in a warm meadow and drank deep of the sun and was happy; so a coarse and crooked man, who lived in the last house before St Brides Bay and whose children hated him but sang like larks for his money, was limned as a quiet man, skimming stones on the beach and smiling into the auroras of a coastal morning when no-one knew. But Evans the Bodies was a watcher for the sad and lonely. He was a dresser of bodies, to be sure, but he also had a talent for the sad soul and the lonely. And alongside his careful stitch and suture and his eye for the sick at heart, he had always loved Mfanwy: when she was someone else’s, as she laboured for and lost her child, when both times he bought her milk-white lilies and she said, ‘Evans, there’s a soft man you are’ and he cried with his back to her, as he did when she lost her husband. He put poems in the book for her, too. Imagined he was taking pictures of her, watching her written into the world all around and, as he watched the frosty lines on the windows in his cold parlour and saw the feathers and curlicues of winter, he scratched her monogram in the frost and rime and, again, he cried, and saw himself at a window as the beautiful ship Mfanwy his Love sailed away and thus he wrote again.

I had seen the rapture and the writing called ‘Mfanwy’, of course, though he did not know. I had learned it by heart and whispered it into the Pembrokeshire night, whose kind tendrils carried it to her and caressed her, then softly laid waste to sadness and silence and made her think clearly about Evans the Bodies, who loved her and always had, just so.

The Life of Almost – and an invitation, if you’re local, like.

An invitation if you are a local-ish writer or reader and would like to come for some reading and discussion of the first few chapters of the book I am working on, my follow up to Killing Hapless Ally (March, 2016, Patrician Press).

The Life of Almost is a re-working of Great Expectations, with its protagonist, Almost, roughly modelled on Pip. It has a predominantly Welsh setting, much of it being in Pembrokeshire. As such, it draws on the stories I have been listening to my whole life and so I have adapted these for the book. Stories of sailors, the strange dangers of the sea and those who love in it and on it; dark events at steam fairs; predicaments at village shows; kelp, barnacles, tough salty men, the cree of the curlew and the dead across the estuary and of how gentry moved in and spoiled all. Stories of beatings known about but hidden in plain sight; curses and vendettas; strange harpists, madness, mutism; poltergeists who threw pictures from walls and plants from windowsills and vases from above the fireplace. People who went away and never came back: stories, stories, stories. Shootings, hangings, disappearances. My idea of a picnic could still revolve around sitting by graves describing the dreadful manner in which relatives died, except I desist because I’m the mother of three young boys and I think my upbringing was definitely weird and I’m sure the kids think I’m quite peculiar, already.

So, you know roughly the story arc if you know Great Expectations, I’ve told you a little of the settings, but there’s more to it. Because, as Almost takes you through stories of his world – as he tells them to Catherine, who opens the first chapter, so tired of life – you come to realise that he is not entirely of this world and not entirely of this time: he is something more protean and unconfined; a storyteller who can shift substance in an extraordinary way and who is not compromised by, shall we say, temporal and ordinal rules…I hope, when it finds its home, that you will find the book darkly funny, maybe a bit shocking in places and that you’ll enjoy what I have done with my favourite book, Great Expectations, such as reworked Jaggers into a nasty (Ben Jonson’s) ‘Volpone’, basking in his gold somewhere off a great motorway and given you many elements of the supernatural. I did something a bit radical the other day and incorporated, euphemistically, some of the Brexit scoundrels – they are part of why Catherine, who begins the book, is so jaded and sad and thus why she has Almost come to visit. And, you know, one might question: is Almost really there at all? Or is he created by others when….they need him. Oooohhhh.

Because I stand by this and know it to be true: a story can save your life.

Like a copy of Killing Hapless Ally? Order from Waterstones, your local bookshop (Ex Libris and Mr B’s have copies in our area), the Patrician Press website or Amazon here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Killing-Hapless-Ally-Anna-Vaught-ebook/dp/B01CA5F21Y/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1468239225&sr=1-1

 

 

 

A fine new anthology to come

 

Patrician Press Anthology of Poems and Short Stories

Patrician Press Anthology of Poems and Short Stories, by Anna Johnson, EditorPublished February 1st, 2017

Prices
£3.99 (e-book)
£8.00 (print)

ISBN
9780993494543 (e-book)
9780993494567 (print)

By Anna Johnson, Editor

This anthology of poems and short stories is the result of short-listed works from a competition Patrician Press ran in 2016 on the themes of Refugees and Peace-Seekers. The entries were judged by Joceline Bury, Anna Johnson, Emma Kittle-Pey and Petra McQueen.

The selected works are now included in the anthology. Further contributions from Patrician Press and other authors are as follows: Emma Kittle-Pey, Petra McQueen, Suzy Norman, Robert Ronsson, Sara Elena Rossetti, Anna Vaught, Kenneth Steven and more. Some of the latter works are much more loosely connected to the original themes.

The collection is edited by Anna Johnson who has also written the introduction.

Darkly Funny and Courageous: Killing Hapless Ally

This bold, unique novel is a first-rate example of the innovative and original approach exemplifying the contemporary small press scene.

Source: Darkly Funny and Courageous: Killing Hapless Ally

Thalassa-Môr – seventeen draft poems and a finished one

These eighteen poems are, excepting the first one (which is already accepted for publication), in very draft form and are the basis of a poetry pamphlet I am currently calling Thalassa-Môr. It gets its title because, although it’s about countryside I know, difficult things that have happened, my family and other much loved people and events, I have also threaded through it elements from Greek literature and from Welsh. The title of the first poem is from The Odyssey; ‘Rhiannon’ lower down refers, albeit obliquely, to characters in the Mabinogion. I have also woven in stories from my grandmother and from other elderly storytellers whose auspices and provenance I couldn’t grasp as a child. Was I related to them? I wasn’t and am not exactly sure. The storyteller was the important thing. Anyway, these poems (plus some others) in a much more polished form will be going in different directions in the summer – so fingers crossed. NB: the layout that pops up on wordpress is not how they are set out in my ms, so some of the verses aren’t quite preserved and the left spine is uneven. This is an anomaly I haven’t fixed yet.

Do feel free to comment on the drafts at the bottom of the text. Anna x


1

‘Cast out, my broken comrades’

St Justinian at dawn; the boat,
Its clenched hull scowling,
As braced against the swell,
Collected errant figures – all
Adrift, so lost on land, and sad.
We reached out, emptied souls,
To Ramsey Sound; the island
Siren-called us, brought us home
To sea: to stay afloat a while
And find our shipwrecked selves.

It wasn’t in the landing of our craft,
Against the crashing deck of shore,
But somewhere in between the rock
And rock, that melancholy came to rest –

And tumbled down through navy depths

And we were free, unbroken: still.

This poem is published in Anthology of the Sea by The Emma Press, October, 2016.

 

2

‘My heart unbroken, then, by fish- frozen sea.’

 

‘Oh never fill your heart with trawlermen!’

My Nanny told, then told: ‘You want
a man with both feet on the ground –
a man with roughened nails, from
dirt and labour on the land,

not brined and drenched through by the Sea.’
But Nanny never knew the sound
of oilskin slipped on clover bank;
of danger in the stolen hull,
of silver, limned above your head,
while thwart hands toiled through the night,
and washed me up and brought me home.

I wouldn’t learn: I dreamed of pearls, full fathom five;

I sang of gales, the tang of salt,
the storied depths of sea and sea –
limb-frozen journeys, far from home
With yellow light on midnight crests.
But Nanny told, then told, ‘You want
a man with bone-dry shoes, inland;
your sailors leave you high and dry,
they catch and throw and pack in ice
the keenest heart that you can toss.’
But Nanny never knew the song
of siren journeys way out there,
Of labour stoked by heat and loss –

She didn’t feel the azure pull,

the mermaid kiss, the tongues that spoke;
she died a desiccated
ideath, in clod
that choked, while primrose mocked.
Still, out at sea, I rocked and bobbed:
we drew the finest catch that day.

 

3

Madonna of the Cleddau

 

The sea coast was too far for you;

To keep inland was your advice,

Away from Jack Tar, foreign folk:

Stay cloistered on this estuary.

Madonna of the Cleddau, come:

Square jaw, dark eyes and, counterpoint,

Retroussé  nose and powdered cheeks:

And born of earth, not briny downs.

You birthed eleven, stood back up,

With apron on and sleeves rolled high,

Delivered livestock, lipstick on,

With plaintive songs of field delight.

But, round the wall, the sea began,

Spoke not to you: you had no thought

To jump and best a warmer wave;

A voyage out was lost on you.

What did you care for them or theirs?

Madonna’s night world of the quay

Had supernatural force: the owls,

The rustle of the hawk, black elms,

The screech and call and elsewhere sound.

Such pale wings drew on navy sky

As you looked out across the flats

And thought that this was world enough,

The kelp, the wrack was only stench.

I’ve seen it now, your home; your hearth:

The summer quay was bunting dressed,

The village pub all polished up,

No gossip, snarling by the bar;

A ‘Country Living’ August snap,

All cleansed of snuff or pewter cup,

Sent gentry, as you might have said.

And rag and bone man, gone to dust.

Madonna of the Cleddau, mine:

I sing to you from farther shores:

I wish that you had gone to sea –

We could have basked there, you and I.

It never changed, waves’ thunderous moods

Could not be altered, made anew.

I look at Cresswell now and wish

The sea would roar and cry and break

The weeded walls, the altered beds,

Bring wrack and shells to grace the stones

Where mortar tidily restrains.

4

When did I

I went out early, tiger-clad, for bravery’s sake

To try the sea. Its bite was worse than mine –

It told harsh words and mumbles spat a briny sound

Of fury’s heart. And I was spent, so roared no more.

5

Returns a sea echo

Had I not been mute, still yet, as Milton might,

I should have cried to miss a mirror in every mind –

Not to have glimpsed the swallow, bright,

Such cresting clarion call and bravest hunter’s horn.

I might, I say, have wished to be alone,

Caressing so the dampening blossom now –

Finger tipped to velvet wings at dusk,

Unbound by duty, or amaranthine depths

To sit on quiet rosy evenings, darkness settling by

In bowing woods, with harebells pealing close.

For stillness made replete what things I saw –

And bosom sentiment was only that

Such contemplation of this hour was wasted not:

The honour was replete.

But very now, then up the churchyard path

A fox came, sharp; the beech tree whispered thanks

Thus honour was in being quiet,

Reverent in this storied landscape, still.

6

Myfanwy, I loved

Mfanwy, as you were: bay window, a side light and a black background.

Then as you were again: middle room – direct front light. I was specific.

Mfanwy – I was precise; exacting with the fall of dark and bright: I wrote it down.

Mfanwy, as I hoped you were. But you smiled and sailed away, sassy girl.

I sat for hours as the shadows fell, knowing what night must still portend: my craft.

I drew a nail across a pane and scratched your name, invisible to others as

the evening settled in. I knew that morning brought a monogram in window frost

for you to see and I to know: I showed you how its feathered lines and confidence

spoke truth to us – that you could stay. The frost had crept along the span

to show you how this foolish clot had said the most that could be said

and then I spoke – and ruined all. A foolish joke: my love; my word –

Mfanwy, stay. Mfanwy, do not sail away.

I tried to draw another length to keep you here: pellucid worlds for us to share,

yet how I knew what I had done. You cared not yet for crystal casts,

the shapes recorded day by day. The metaphor for heavenly plan

was lost for you in my thwart hands – and so I scratched and tried to show

a simple script, its blazon – you. I fell and fell and no-one knew.

Oh sassy girl, why should you stay or want a watcher of the skies,

a gabbling fool, like me? Why, no.

Mfanwy, stay. Mfanwy, do not sail away.

7

County Town

If I should fall, then say to me the reason clouds form as they are,

why ice should seed along a scratch, why I should love my six point star.

I do not know or care to see the smiles that fall in brazen line,

but innocence and clearest eye embolden me to make her mine.

I speak of love and quiet worlds, the county town on winter nights:

the sweets of honey bees, a view of ruby sky and amber lights –

of unctuous syrup mixed with snow, auroras made of rosy glow,

My Borealis blood-red sheen – if I should fall, then make me know.

When I am not and you are here, beholden to this dusty room,

be gentle with the tenuous forms of memory; do not grieve too soon.

Consider this – why should we be, ephemeral and urgent? How?

And speak to me with confidence, declaim for me on cliff or prow.

In nature’s fragile frame I see a world that lives beyond the hill,

Beyond the log pile, salt and shed; behind our eyes when we lie still.

And when I fall, then say to me you read its language, pure and keen –

And set my records on my desk and light my lamp: make them be seen.

8

‘Always there were uncles’ (Dylan Thomas, A Child’s Christmas in Wales)

I longed not to talk to him, the schoolmaster;

He was always old, even as a boy, Llewhellin.

His eyes blorted thick, his voice rasped:

Never a pretty thing was he.

But I misses him now, you see, that old man

Cresting the corners of the foxgloved lanes –

Standing at Walton West, scowling at the tankers

Bound for Milford from great bright places

He hadn’t seen and didn’t want.

And I misses the silent pouring of tea

And the picking of apples from his headland-wizened trees;

the storied estuary, century feuds and nodding campion.

And I cry when I scent, alone, the violet patch, dug up,

Where I found him. And he was gone, eyes closed and young.

9

Walton West

In this drear place, I see my family loved

In celandines and mugwort garlands drawn;

I do not not know what tears or mossy lies

They fought so hard to keep from being said

Llewhellins, thick and fast and tired and gone,

Their stories drawn in stone or footstep sand.

10

Still to be sad

In the old shop on the harbour walk I saw a note: ‘Be Mine:

were you that girl I saw on the sand, turning to face me

against the gale? I think you saw me and I want to know.’

It was there for weeks, that note, rusting in the sun,

And brushed by arms of the boys running from the beach

for ice cream and the papers for bored parents.

And weeks more it hung, unnoticed, torn;

down in shreds it was, a girl would never see.

But a girl had never seen. She’d been looking instead

over the shoulder of the keen bright boy

to the man who broke her heart: a challenge –

find me, save me. Do not let me now walk out into the sea.

But in the keening of the wind and

the straining of the gale, all turned away

And she was gone and the slips of note removed,

for something clean and tidy and not sad.

11

Druidstone Haven. A sonnet

We climbed the downward spiral of the trail

To best the shedding fingers of the cliff,

I’d promised you, oh love, I could not fail

I’d prove to you against our lovers’ tiff,

That there was treasure to be found that day –

Albescent moons to cradle in your hand –

Sea urchins fine, a little world to say:

Echinocardium, wanting to be grand.

But my world was not yours, you did not care

To hold the little lanterns in your palm –

The hollow globe within the greatest fair,

You did not care if such should come to harm.

So cracked the sea potato on the tide:

I knew, although I smiled, my love had died.

12

Grave bag

‘Girl, get the grave bag from by the back door!’

‘I’m doing it now, in a minute!’

‘But have you got there the water in the milk bottle,

the scrubber and the cloth and the scissors,

they’re rusty but will do to trim?’

‘Yes, yes, I see them now.’

‘But have you got them, have you? We musn’t forget

and mustn’t leave the bag at home and mustn’t take it

to the graves half full, is it done now, is it all and are you sure?’

‘Yes, I am sure.’

The bag was bundled and the car was roared and the dead were glad

of a well-kept stone and the brambles trimmed and no-one cursed,

like they did, all did, in life, and the door was keyed and the grave bag was refilled

and sat just as it should, and the life was endless not altered,

even in this loud new world.

                                                                  13 

                                                                 Cariad.

                   Rounding the headland at St Brides and sighting the small churchyard,

Cariad, you were aware, weren’t you now, that things were changed that day?

You saw us with the girl, cousin by marriage, I think she was,

And all was well because she was not you. You were, weren’t you now,

The same age and the same beauty and the same dimension, even, roughly now,

And all so different because she was not you. And daddy said, I know he did,

‘Ah, my lovely girl, my cariad, look at your lovely golden hair

And your blue eyes and the light foot and a tumble of a laugh’ –

But that was not for you, but for your cousin, by marriage I think she was,

And she was fair and pretty and you with your welter of a laugh

And your thin voice and your pinched nose and you my shameless,

shameful little girl, mine but not mine and yapping now

as we rounded the headland at St Brides. Sing to the sailors, girl,

cry for the mermaids if you see them there, but in this dark world

where cliffs heap up and the boy drowns and the wrack fills,

think always that none of this cares for you, but for her, cariad.

 

14

Lewis, who went away

When I was a kid, Lewis took his own life.

I heard them say he took it, but where it went,

I couldn’t say or wasn’t told. Perhaps it had

been drained, in the sloop, with all his pints,

or thrown gladly off Stack Rocks with a shout

that he married well and was a man they liked,

but I don’t know. For once, though I was very young,

I saw a look from out the corner of his eye as he shipped

off, went laughing with the pot boys and his girl:

that look it said, I think, that Lewis wanted rescuing,

but no-one came, as the sea foam danced in Cardigan Bay.

 

15

Auger

The Auger shell, unbroken, in the palm,

still yet, such tenor of this hour upon this tide,

I wait at Nolton, looking out to sea:

you do not come. I nurse the shell,

its whorls and tidy chambers tell

of secrets and of things I cannot know;

the grains of sand, or filament of carapace

swept up inside its little maze,

its rooms, its tidy cap, once came from elsewhere,

elsewhere on this tide, I’ll never know. And you,

I wait for, still, looking out to sea. I hear you laugh

and cannot say from where it came, but seabirds circle low.

I throw the shell where anemone and spider crab

have made their home – more life reclaims it now,

as your laugh is lost to me, in warm thrift and gorse

and the tenor of this hour upon the tide.

16

Rhiannon

My mother taught at Wiston school,

Her hands were lithe, her mind so sharp,

Her friend Rhiannon worshipped her

And plucked her name upon the harp

Which sat all gold, in sight of all,

Rhiannon’s talons told mother’s fall –

She plucked a death upon the strings,

Her dainty nails scratched their goal:

‘Your mother will have feet, not wings

And with their clay, they’ll crush her soul –

Oh read The Mabinogion, dear,

You pretty pretty little child –

For you shall be my daughter fair,

my son Avaggdu’s ugly – wild –

the thick and thwart upon his brow

why should she have while I’ve not got?

Your mother taught at Wiston school

and so I tell you, she shall not.’

She plucked and plucked and screamed her rage

now mother’s clad in primrose dell,

But I can’t go and see her now,

Rhiannon keeps me in a cage

And sings to me of dulcet love

And all the things I cannot gauge:

Avaggdu cries for he’s not loved

And spits upon upon sweet mother’s grave.

17

The Famished House

Around here, the trees suck air and, at night,

when the last shriek of the plump and pretty-breasted curlew

s drawn from its throat, and when the strand-line treasure

is dulled and shredded against the rock, even in fair weather,

well then: that is the time that the houses take their fill.’

‘Nanny, is it true?’ ‘ Oh yes. Around here, when the moss

spawns bad, it creeps across your foot if you slowly move,

so be sure to move quite fast, when the twilight stalks,

then that is the time that the houses take their fill.’

‘Nanny, is it true?’ ‘Oh yes. When the jewel sky

and the lapping wing, have beat their very blood

into the hour, take heed; the tidiest stones

we built such with, will stretch up so to bark at silly men,

the silliest from away, for we shall know

what is to come, as groaning, crafted stone leans in

to kiss a sleeping face and staunch, in wild rebellion, dear,

the men that wrest it proudly from the ground.’

18

Slebech Forest

Today we will go inland dear, to see the rhododendron bloom,

Away from sea scent, sunset shell; away from me, away from you.’

We travelled for hours on little tracks, their way being marked with showy prime,

It was, at first, of some delight, but then my love spoke of his crime:

‘So stay here, love, forever held, unless you scent the estuary,

And I fly high, to England bold, away from you, away from me.’

Ah dear, you underestimate my knowledge of this mazèd land,

You did not hear the laughing breeze, dead mammy’s come and with her hand

She’ll pen you up, beside the Rhos, and I will run forever free,

I’ll not stay here, forever held, not stay with you but live for me –

An orient boat will rescue me, blown on dead daddy’s pretty curse

And rhododendron casket blooms will strip your life and end my verse.