After months of hearing, thinking and talking about only the one thing, it is completely wonderful to be able to share some good news with you.

Firstly, I’m delighted to be one of the winners of the Coast to Coast to Coast pamphlet competition with my manuscript Let’s Dance. This is the brainchild of poet and artist, Maria Isakova Bennett and her books are a little bit special, as they are all handstitched in silk covers.

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And also this feels even more of a celebration because some of the poems in Let’s Dance began last year as part of a writing residency at the Alde Valley Spring Festival, and this year I’m very proud to be part of the Summer Festival there too, working with the artist Perienne Christian. Her work is stunning so I’m already inspired, and hopefully we will be able to meet in person at the Festival in Suffolk later this year. The Alde Valley Spring and Summer Festival is a very special event, and this year it has gone online so do take a look. Here’s a memory of writing at that time…

A third thing to say is something that has been so important to me that I want to mention it now but come back to later as I’ve so much to say! It was a real honour to be asked to write a module for The Literary Consultancy’s Being a Writer programme. My module centred around Dealing with Self Doubt and Imposter Syndrome – something I wonder if writers ever get over. Perhaps not as this quote from John Steinbeck illustrates:

I am not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people.

There are things we can do though to help us keep going, and it was so interesting to explore all these, and to work out which were the best ones to fit into the programme. It was fabulous to work with the team at the Literary Consultancy, and I quickly found out how much they cared about the whole project so I do hope it helps people. If you have done the course, do let me know how you got on with it, and if you haven’t, it’s here! 

And lastly, one of the ‘other’ things on my mind recently, as I’m sure it has with you, are the issues raised by Black Lives Matter. It really is a time for me to listen and read and learn more. Here are just some of the books I’ve been turning to, and would recommend:

However, as this great article shows, there is a danger that ‘When black people are in pain, white people just join book clubs” so I’m also happy that, through a favourite ex-student at the LSE, I’ll be mentoring two black students on their academic writing. I’m lucky that I have transferable skills, but also fully intend that any mentoring is two-way.

It’s a privilege to be able to write all of this post, but also it’s important for me to recognise that I’ve been working hard to get to this position. One of the things that being in hospital and yes, recovering, has shown me is that I need to do what’s important to me – poetry, words, art, nature, sustainability, learning and being part of helping everyone reach their potential. I’ll be learning to say NO more this year if things don’t feel right.

Oh, and I forgot cake. Here’s another reminder why I’m so happy to be part of Alde Valley again this year…

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If you’ve been walking round my town recently, you may have seen poems like bunting hanging outside a particular house. You may have been one of those I’ve overheard saying, ‘What are these?’, or even, ‘Only in Tunbridge Wells!’

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Well, I’ve been very proud to have been that ‘mad poetry lady’ in the ‘mad poetry house’ and thanks to all my other mad poetry friends for letting me put their poems up for everyone to enjoy. I lost count of the photographs taken, people stopping to enjoy them, and even an impromptu reading as one woman read them out via Facetime to friends in Spain. I was particularly touched by one couple who said they came by every day to read one poem a day.

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Funny how these things happen. I knew when I came out of hospital, I wanted to do something positive and as a writer, words are what I can use. And then one day, I wrote this poem (below) which was actually inspired by a yellow postcard I do have stuck rather inelegantly above my computer. It was only when I read the draft back that I realised I was telling myself what to do! It’s like the old saying has it, ‘I write to find out what I think’.

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The poems are coming down tonight so I wanted to write this post, not just to find out what I think but to remember it too! (Thank you to fellow poet, Jess Whyte, some of whose photographs I have stolen to use above.)

Truth
Sarah Salway

Today I wonder whether to hang
bunting on the railings outside my home,
each triangle a dot or a dash
for passers-by to read in any direction.
I’ll watch them through my window,
see how their faces change as they realise
it’s a code that only some will break.

Above my computer is a yellow postcard
of a letterpress Morse alphabet.
Sometimes I tap words out with my fingers,
and as my hands remember the dance
of when they’d waltz on my old typewriter,
even my sleek silent keyboard shudders along
with every swing and ding of the carriage return.

We don’t catch strangers’ eyes these days
and it’s this I miss, those snatches
of conversations that won’t even take place
until later, in my mind, I fill in the gaps,
I’ve never told anyone this before but—

When I was talking with someone recently about feeling ‘over-whelmed’, I had the sudden urge to look up what ‘whelmed’ means.

Definition of whelm
transitive verb

1: to turn (something, such as a dish or vessel) upside down usually to cover something : cover or engulf completely with usually disastrous effect
2: to overcome in thought or feeling : OVERWHELM
whelmed with a rush of joy
— G. A. Wagner
intransitive verb

: to pass or go over something so as to bury or submerge it

Hmm… somehow I thought it might be more positive – like we all hope one day to ravel ourselves together, or to become hibited, or to have our spirits pressed. But no matter, it danced its way into one of the many lockdown poems I’ve been writing recently about what’s going on right now. I’m going to share my practice on here more – there, if I say I’m going to, I’ll have to do it. Enjoy!

Top hat and tails
Sarah Salway

When we ask each other what we miss most
the answers spin off like arabesques:
crowded pubs, hugs, a train to nowhere
essential, evenings in sold-out theatres
forgetting real life, planning holidays.

Then there are the second drink answers:
enough years to play with grudges, politicians
who aren’t out to kill us, a tomorrow
where we might finally make that difference,
but maybe the more interesting question

is what we will take with us into new normal:
having time to pick up a dictionary and look up
whelm – to be swept beneath by a wave. Over
under, we’re cheek to cheek now, swimming
into the future, backwards and in high heels.

Well, what strange times we are in. And although I’m one for seeing the silver lining wherever I can, I’m struggling at the moment. Small kindnesses, for sure. I do like your hat…

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So it’s good to see some of the creative responses that are happening. Kathy Fish and Nancy Stohlman, for example, are offering free creative writing prompts here, and writer Carolyn Jess-Cooke is planning an online literary festival via twitter.

My friend, Sally Beazley-Long and I have paired up to play a little game using her art history expertise and my literary passion. I’ve been giving her poems and stories to match with paintings, and vice versa. We thought it would just be fun, but the results have been wonderful. A whole new layer to both the painting and the poem. Here are some:

For Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Still…

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I matched Dorothy Parker’s short story, A Telephone Call.

And for William Stafford’s A Ritual to Read to Each Other, Sally gave me Marc Chagall’s Le Champ de Mars, 1955…

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We paired Ellen Bass’s Eating the Bones with Jan Steen’s The Fat Kitchen. OF COURSE WE DID!

Steen, Jan, 1625/1626-1679; The Fat Kitchen

There are more that we’ll share over the next few weeks, but it’s such a lovely way of looking a bit closer than we might otherwise at both the poems and stories AND the paintings.

These are seeds that can only grow. And tomorrow I’m going to be planting real seeds out in the garden. Even in the rain, actually especially if it rains!

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I have been reading all the wonderful letters in the Dear Poet initiative on Poets.org – I find every one touching, both the questions from the school children and the care taken by the poets in responding.

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The correspondence from Alice Ostriker to her poem, Move, though was really moving. I wish I’d had a poet to write to when I was growing up – particularly one who would offer this lovely image: “I was not at all like the salmon or turtle that has no doubts–I only wished I were.”

Do read the poem before you read the letters, as many of the images are reflections of ‘Move’. And also because, although this project is for children, I think we all want to be:

Thirsty for a destiny like theirs,
An absolute right choice

And it’s got me thinking. Which poet would you write to, and about which poem?

 

 

 

This time last year I was still on a high from giving a TEDx talk – possibly one of the scariest but best things I’ve done in my writing career. You can watch it – In Praise of Everyday Words –  here.

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In fact I was so inspired by the AMAZING team putting the whole event together, that I volunteered to help put on this year’s event. And I can’t tell you the number of people who’ve told me that they’d wished they’d known about the day, so this is a little bit of a public service announcement – the TEDxRoyalTunbridgeWells event is on this Saturday, 1st February at the Assembly Halls in Tunbridge Wells.

YOU’VE NO EXCUSE NOW and you are not too late. The organisers have just released an extra tranche of tickets because of demand.  Do come and say hello if you’re there. I’ll be one of the people in TED t-shirts showing people where the loo is.

You can see the speaker line-up here (hence the subject heading). I’ve been in on some of the conversations and I can tell you that they are going to be amazing!

ted

But back to me.

My talk last year featured the Oxford Word of the Year, and as the one for 2018 was TOXIC, I hoped that 2019 might be more positive. Well, folks, it’s CLIMATE EMERGENCY. Hmmm. One of the things we did last year was invite the audience to think of their own words – but sadly hug, hope and authentic didn’t make the grade.

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Anyway I’ve updated the poem I wrote for my talk to include Climate Emergency – the other words of the year are in bold or underlined with their year beside them.

I like the idea of doing this every year from now on, with a poem that gets longer and longer….

 

Icarus vapes over a dictionary (2014)
by Sarah Salway

The weather was post-truth that summer, (2016)
we lounged in our gardens,
took selfies in lycra. (2013)

Those sunny Sundays,
while we could still pretend
Climate Emergency was just for cranks, (2019)

and even us squeezed middles (2011)
could imagine ourselves gods –

with music breaking through walls
and us dancing,

a rest from the omnishambles (2012)
of so many toxic headlines, (2018)

and if sometimes we looked up
in the hope
that it might never end,

perhaps we were waiting
for the promised youthquake (2017)
who would build us a Big Society(2010)

a term many of us still liked the sound of
but few had ever understood –
if we were completely honest …

face-with-tears-of-joy_1f602 (2015)

The Chiddingstone Literary Festival has been called ‘one of the best literary festivals in Britain’, according to the Tatler magazine, and it’s certainly one of the most beautiful settings for it. SO, lucky me, I got to give two workshops in the historic library there over the weekend.

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It wasn’t hard to find inspiration, especially when you enter through this door, and then come across this Egyptian mummy on the way up the stairs.

And then there’s the library itself which looks like a collection belonging to someone extremely privileged. In fact, as I pointed out, some of the books there were probably bound by the previous owner of the castle, Denys Eyre Bower himself, and he had learnt bookbinding when he was in prison. But that’s a whole different story. Look again, look harder, look in a different way! That was the message of the workshop.

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We looked at quick-fire ways of getting inspiration in the morning with a series of short exercises that led into one another. Here’s one – taking the work of Joe Brainard who wrote the now iconic book,  I Remember:

I remember ‘no ankles’ on some old ladies.

I remember trying to imagine my grandfather naked. (Eck!)

I remember having a crush on a cousin and mother telling me that you can’t marry a cousin and, ‘But why can’t you marry a cousin?’ and, ‘Because it’s against the law,’ and ‘But why is it against the law?’ etc.

I remember white marshmallow powder on lips.

I remember a very big boy named Teddy and what hairy legs his mother had. (Long black ones squashed flat under nylons.)

I remember Dagwood and Blondie shorts before the feature started.

I remember not allowing myself to start on the candy until the feature started.

I remember big battle scenes and not understanding how they could be done without a lot of people getting hurt.

I remember crossing your fingers behind your back when you tell a lie.

I remember thinking that comic books that weren’t funny shouldn’t be called ‘comic books’.

We wrote our own ‘I remembers’ around books, and libraries, and castles… and then just as quickly wrote a second list. This time, starting again with I remember, we wrote lies. As wild as you liked. It was interesting to see how the mind had to work harder with the fictional memories, but we agreed that both lists took us to surprising places.

This was one of several themed poems we read, And Yet the Books by Czeslaw Milosz:

And Yet the Books
Czeslaw Milosz

And yet the books will be there on the shelves, separate beings,
That appeared once, still wet
As shining chestnuts under a tree in autumn,
And, touched, coddled, began to live
In spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up,
Tribes on the march, planets in motion.
“We are,” they said, even as their pages
Were being torn out, or a buzzing flame
Licked away their letters. So much more durable
Than we are, whose frail warmth
Cools down with memory, disperses, perishes.
I imagine the earth when I am no more:
Nothing happens, no loss, it’s still a strange pageant,
Women’s dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley.
Yet the books will still be there on the shelves, well born,
Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.

For our last exercise, YES WE WORKED HARD!, we looked at haiku – as in the capturing of a moment. This was part of thinking about how we noticed things – not just the sight of something, but also the questions we might have, the other senses we feel, the insights that come to us. I suggested that they might leave their poems and lines around the castle and during the rest of the day, I kept coming across them like mini treasures. They had indeed become part of the Chiddingstone collection. Here are some that I found, and I know there are others I hope to stumble across next time I’m there:

In the afternoon, I ran another workshop in Getting Published – focusing particularly on short stories, essays and poetry. It’s one of my favourite workshops to give because it’s always an eye-opener in how much there is out there. If anyone would like a copy of my handouts for this, including where to find magazines, examples of how to write your biography, etc etc, do email me on sarah@sarahsalway.co.uk, and I’d be happy to share.

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It was the end of a perfect weekend really. I’d been at the castle on the Saturday too, with Michael and John from the Poetry Exchange, recording people talking about the poems that had been a friend for them for the podcast. None of the festival’s recordings are up just yet, but you can listen to many others prepared earlier here. The Poetry Exchange is always a magical, surprising experience for everyone involved. This time round, we had Wilfred Owen, David Whyte, Mary Oliver, H W Longfellow, C P Cavafy, and Kathleen Raine all come and take tea with us in the castle Housekeeper’s Room. I’m pleased to report they got on very well indeed.

 

I’ve been honoured to be asked by so many people for a copy of the poem I read out at the Tunbridge Wells TEDx day, so I’m happy to share it here. It was made of the Oxford English Dictionary‘s words of the year from the last nine months – Vape, post-truth, selfie, squeezed middles, omnishambles, toxic, youthquake, Big Society and … well, look at the end of the poem for the ‘word’ for 2015… a little challenge for a writer.

I hope you enjoy it. And if you fancy doing a TEDx talk yourself, I’ve given some tips here. It’s not compulsory to write a poem.

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Icarus vapes over a dictionary (2014)
by Sarah Salway

The weather was post-truth that summer, (2016)
we lounged in our gardens,
took selfies in lycra. (2013)

Those sunny Sundays,
even us squeezed middles (2011)
could imagine ourselves gods –

with music breaking through walls
and us dancing,

a rest from the omnishambles (2012)
of so many toxic headlines, (2018)

and if sometimes we looked up
in the hope
that it might never end,

perhaps we were waiting
for the promised youthquake (2017)
who would build us a Big Society, (2010)

a term many of us still liked the sound of
but few had ever understood –
if we were completely honest …

face-with-tears-of-joy_1f602 (2015)

And yes that last one was the Word of the Year in 2015!!

It was also a joy to see alternative words put up by the people who attended the day of talks, including more positive words that we WOULD LIKE to remember 2019 with. Here they are. I’m going to have to make a new poem, I can tell.

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NB, Thank you to Simon Pearsall, the wonderful cartoonist who drew that cartoon at the top during my talk. It was a reference to how I use words in the same way as a builder uses bricks.

shopping

ONLY THREE SHOPPING DAYS LEFT BEFORE CHRISTMAS…. but I had the loveliest free present this morning: a dear friend, John Prebble, recorded himself reading one of the shopping poems from my collection, Transaction, and sent it to me. He read it so beautifully it took me some time to realise it was my own poem! Enjoy the recording just below…

And here’s the poem….

Transaction

If it’s going to be too sudden,
then I’d rather it didn’t happen.
if there’s not going to be any tenderness,
I’ll just leave now before we both regret.
If we’re not going to try to share,
laugh about it, make it something rare,
I won’t do it. It’ll become too hard.
But if, when I hand over my card,
in that moment of flesh brushing flesh,
meeting of eyes, cheeks burning fresh,
if in that moment, I feel the waves
inside subside, no longer a slave
but a master, all bad thoughts funnelled
into this, then it’s worth it. I’m lulled,
everything that’s gone before a sign,
and it’s more than perfect, it’s sublime.
I’m already longing for the next time.

John and I met properly through The Poetry Exchange, so do listen to some of the podcasts there if you are longing for some poetry discussions over Christmas!