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!’

poems2

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.

poems5poembunting1

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’.

poems1

 

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—

That for the first few weeks after you get out of hospital, you’ll turn into Bambi, wobble on your legs, trip over your feet, tremble at every loud noise. Even as you think you’re getting stronger, there will be days when you fall back until it’s as if the words stay alert have been written on your heart.

That you won’t be able to stop thinking about your hospital room, and who might be lying in the bed now, and how their family might be feeling. Even when you’re doing other things, you are still half in that room and half in the world. You are not sure which feels more real.

That your hair will fall out in handfuls. You’ll look it up on Google, and feel better when you see this is probably a result of those high fevers you suffered. You’ll even pull out the clumps in your hairbrush for the birds to use in nests, until later you’ll start wondering if your hair still contains the virus, if you’re contaminating nests, if birds will start dropping down dead from the sky.

That it’ll all be your fault.

That you’ll feel continually ashamed as if you’re contaminated, dirty.

That people will whisper about you as you go by. She’s the one who… Even when strangers come up to you in the park and say how happy it made them to know that it’s possible to recover from the virus, you’ll hear the whispers. She’s the one who…

That the night before you have to go back to hospital for your six week x-rays, you can’t sleep at all. You’d thought you were getting over it but you realise that the whole thing happened so quickly first time round – the ambulance, the oxygen, the visors and PPE that the nurses had to put on to even bring you some water, the messages from people who still didn’t realise what was going on, the lack of any control you might have on the situation – that it might just happen again.

And even though you go to where you are told to go in hospital, even though you have all the right forms, the radiologist still casually looks at your notes before spotting that one word ‘covid’ and shouts, STAND BACK, and then makes you walk at a safe distance behind him. The rest of the waiting room stare at you, shuffle a little away from the chair you’ve been sitting on. There’s no point in saying that you’ve had two negative tests and you may be the safest one there because you still feel ashamed, and you understand their fear. How you understand that.

That your fingernails have ridges on them now and you can’t stop looking at them. It’s as if your body has been tattooed with where the virus got you, and it’s strangely fascinating.

That you will find yourself surreptitiously judging how much your friends and family can take when you talk about what you went through, how you feel now, what still makes you scared.

That you’ll keep saying, I’m so lucky, I’m so lucky, but actually you’re thinking, why me, should I have dieted more, was I too careless, what did I do wrong.

That you will feel you have to relearn so much about how to be alive, and especially how to breathe. Having to rely on oxygen has made you lose confidence in your body’s ability to do it on its own. You buy an Oximeter online, and catch yourself sneaking off far too often to test your oxygen levels. 

That, medically, you’re left on your own. You have to get your information from Google, from survivor forums, from the articles your friends send you and you wish you hadn’t read but that you’ll pass on. You realise no one knows anything, not even the doctors, and that forever in the future, you’ll wonder if every illness, every pain you feel, is due to the virus.

That you feel a strange connection towards everyone who has been hospitalised like you, and you realise it’s the same connection you feel when you hear a Bedfordshire accent. It’s as if all survivors belong to the same landscape now, the maps of your life have been redrawn.

That you remember when one of your best friends was diagnosed with cancer and he told you that he felt he’d entered into a different world, he’d crossed a line. That was then, he said, this is now. I don’t belong in the ‘then’ any more. You’d thought you’d understand properly what he meant. Then.

That to begin with you will think people are mad when they tell you that you might have PTSD. Because surely that’s for soldiers who fought in Vietnam, people who have suffered serious abuse, everyone who has gone to the edge. Even after you agree to talk to a therapist, you’re still apologetic – it was nothing really – until in one of the sessions, you admit to yourself for the first time how close you came to dying. And then you cry with the relief of not having to hold it in anymore.

That you will realise that you don’t have to be anything, do anything to make other people feel better. You will go a bit crazy – order rose wines, Liberty fabrics, hardback novels, poetry books, dark chocolate – just because YOU feel like it. You’ll drink champagne in the park and not care if you’ve turned into a character from Absolutely Fabulous because you want to celebrate being alive.

That you’ll take it for granted that you can breathe without thinking.

That there will eventually come a time when overhearing how really it’s just like a bad case of flu, that it’s been so positive for us all, that wouldn’t it be lovely if it could go on forever, does it even exist, will no longer make you shake. Instead, you’ll find something to agree with there. Because it has been good to slow down. You grow seeds, make a dress, send handwritten letters, write poems. You take it gently, and you laugh again. So much laughter. How good it feels.

And that one day you will be able to hear an ambulance go by, to think of that hospital room, the nurses, and you won’t immediately flash back to your experience. You’ll have created enough distance to be able to stand back and wish that person well. With all your heart. And you’ll make sure that you do that – every time and with all your heart – because whoever they are, you and they belong to the same landscape now. It’s not the one you’d choose but it’s yours. You’re making a new map, and you have no idea where it might take you.

 

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.

What’s clear is when it comes to Coronavirus is how little anyone knows. But that doesn’t stop us talking about it on every news channel, every news headline, every socially distanced corner. I am trying to wean myself off my current 24-hour addiction to news updates because although it’s hard – especially as I’ve reached the angry stage – one of the things I’ve been realising is that my recovery isn’t just about the body. It seems this virus affects the mind as well. So reading this article  by Fiona Lowenstein in the New York Times was a revelation that came at exactly the right time for me.

I was filled with a strange gratitude that it wasn’t just me who couldn’t ‘bounce back’.

Since then several of us ‘survivors’ have found each other and banded together, exchanging truths and experiences knowing that we will understand things that maybe others don’t or would rather not hear.

Because it’s not pretty.

As Nicholas Coleridge said on the Today programme, coronavirus is like a “very dirty computer virus, infiltrating every part of your system, and contaminating all your files”.

18oasOfZTn21BiQkUqjdlw

There’s also an unhelpful feeling – or maybe it’s just me who feels this – that I need to be a cheerleader for recovery, a walking symbol that you can go into hospital with this ‘dirty virus’ and come out happily the other side.  And of course I have, but the truth is that everyone is extraordinary – after all we’re all adapting to this weird normality, getting on with our lives as if we’re not stuck in some kind of horror movie where to touch someone is to potentially kill them.

And while of course I feel lucky, what I don’t know yet is what special gifts the virus might have left for me long-term.

And. Do. Not. Google. This. Trust me.

So when a good friend told me today, ‘be gentle, very gentle,’ the phrase kept echoing round my head. Not least because there are so many good things I’ve loved recently and I don’t want to forget them. In fact, it feels more important than ever to enjoy them.

So here’s a list of five things that have taken my mind off things and brought me pleasure recently, because, let’s be honest, my one attempt at making sourdough bread didn’t quite fill me with sparkles.

fZoQO5+cQnKuf%JOFDVd4A

 

Hmmm…. So here are some altogether prettier things – I hope that you enjoy them too!

 

1.

THREE BEAUTIFUL THINGS. My friend, Clare, has gone back to writing her blog of three small good things. I read these avidly every day, and remember why my whole family call her ‘beautiful Clare.’

2.

GOOD LIFE-AFFIRMING BOOKS. I loved The Women in Black by Madeleine St John, an Australian novel set in 1960s department store, and then moved on to Kate Bradbury’s The Bumblebee Flies Anyway. This is a non-fiction account of how she turned a decked garden in Brighton into a wildlife (sort of) paradise. I think it would be impossible to read this book and not be inspired. I’m now the proud owner of a bee hotel as a result, and if you are the handy type, here she is showing how to make one.

My next book up is Polly Samson’s A Theatre for Dreamers. I have it on my Kindle, but via Twitter, I learnt that the Newham Bookshop have signed copies in stock. These videos she has done with her family (including her husband David Gilmour)are pretty special too when there aren’t book launches to be enjoyed.

3.

CHOCOLATE. Of course, of course! One of the really lovely presents I got from someone who knows me very well was this box of special chocolates made by Charlotte Flower full of seasonal foraged flavours – ladies smock, wild garlic, sea buckthorn… I’d show you the actual chocolates but I’ve eaten them all! Charlotte is still making and sending chocolates out at the moment so do have a look at her website. And when we are back to some kind of normality, perhaps we can all meet on one of her workshops?

chocolate

4.

ONLINE COURSES. Oh my god, if this isn’t an example of how we all adapt then I don’t know what is. The joy of finding I can still do yoga with my beloved local teachers (turning my camera off so they don’t see me slacking off during plank pose), but there’s also the chance to try things I might not otherwise have been able to. I had the happiest two hours last Saturday doing a herb workshop with Hackney Herbal – oh,  I thoroughly recommend it! I learnt so much and felt afterwards as positive as if I’d been digging bare handed in the soil. I’m also tempted by the courses on offer via the Edinburgh Botanical Garden and Oxford University – at last a chance to drop in, ‘when I was at Oxford’..!

And of course I may do none of them, but just knowing they are all out there and I COULD study electronics or botany opens up the world a little (Also, NOT doing them gives me the same thrill as skiving off school once did…)

5.

GOOD PODCASTS. I know you all listen to so many of these already, but one that’s just started and I’m LOVING is Melissa Harrison‘s The Stubborn Light of Things. It’s uplifting and beautiful, full of the kind of detail that makes you look again at ordinary life. But closer this time, and from a different angle. Also there are only three episodes so far, so there’s that strange but welcome feeling of having to wait for good things to happen. Patience. Patience. Gently. Gently.

 

Oh, and go on one more….

SEEDS. Just look at my runner beans. They don’t know they are starting their lives in second-hand loo roll homes, and heck they don’t care. Because for them there’s a world out there and they are eager to HIT IT. Preferably with red flowers wound through their hair. See the difference in just a week… my babies are growing up fast.

 

 

 

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…

photo-1533055640609-24b498dfd74c

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…

cindy

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…

chagal

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!

igYwebGnTzGRrRBvrk3ctg

 

 

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.

writing letter

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?

 

 

 

Here are some upcoming courses and events:

Starting Wednesday 11th March, 10-12.30 at the University of Kent, Tonbridge Centre – I’ll be running a four week Reading and Writing Flash Fiction course. There are still a few places left, contact the centre for details.

*

Saturday 14th March – Kent and Sussex Writing and Wellbeing Network – Clowning Around with Words and Playfulness Rebellion in Hastings. Contact jon@boom.co.uk for more details.

*

Sunday 10th May – I’ll be running two creative writing workshops at the Chiddingstone Literary Festival in the castle’s library. More information on the festival’s website.

*

Tuesday 12th May – writing and yoga is such a happy mix for me, so I’m delighted to be running a poetry workshop for the wonderful trainee yoga teachers at FLOW.

*

Starting Wednesday 1st July, 10-12.30 at the University of Kent, Tonbridge Centre – I’ll be running a four week Reading and Writing Memoir course. Contact the centre for details.

*

I also run a weekly Reading Round group in Tunbridge Wells on Thursdays for the Royal Literary Fund. We read and study a short story and a poem each session, no need to read in advance. The group is currently full but do contact me if you would like to be put on my mailing list.

I’m just back from two weeks writing in the Sahara Desert.

IMG_2629

I KNOW!!!

The experience was every bit as extraordinary, memorable and above all, productive as I could have hoped.

 

We slept out under stars, ate amazingly well, rode camels and wrote wrote wrote. I’ve come back with a full notebook, and can’t wait to untangle my words. There was something magical about the silence, the space and also … the lack of internet….

IMG_3485

I was staying at Cafe Tissardmine, with the wonderful Karen, a writer and artist herself, who was featured on Ben Fogle’s New Lives in the Wild. She hosts artists and writers throughout the year. In fact, my friend, Linda Cracknell, who invited me this time, will be running a writing workshop there next year (2021). All I can say is GO!

 

Ten years ago – TEN YEARS AGO! – I had a short story, Instructions for Reading This Story, published in the wonderful Defenestration Magazine. It was so much fun to write, but I must admit I had slightly forgotten about it until I got a message through my website from Miroslava who teaches English as a foreign language.

She’d used my story in her class, she wrote. Would I be interested in seeing some of the comments the students had made?

Yes, I would.

So here’s my story… and afterwards you’ll see some of the photographs Miroslava took of the work that came out of reading it in class. THANK YOU SO MUCH. It’s always exciting to see how other people interpret your words.

Instructions for Reading This Story by Sarah Salway

1. Do not assume that just because the story ends with the man and the woman not living happily ever after that the author has problems in her own relationships.

2. A cat can sometimes be just a cat. It is not necessarily a metaphor for death, or motherhood, or even Derrida’s theory of Difference. Perhaps a cat was sitting on the author’s desk and the author thought it would be nice to put it in the story because the cat was old and may not be alive when the story was published. On second thoughts, sometimes a cat can be a metaphor for death. But do not make the mistake of assuming you are clever.

3. Likewise the spelling mistake in line seven of the third paragraph on page two may just be a typo that by-passed the author, editor and copy-editor. It is kinder to ignore it rather than suggest students include it in their essays as deliberate faux-beginnerism. And especially not as an example of sloppy editing. In fact, don’t teach this story at all. But if you do, do not send the author your student’s comments. Unless, of course, they are very positive. And then send them straight away.

4. Please look at the name of the author carefully. Remember it. This person spent many hours chained to her desk when she would rather be out walking in the woods just so you could be entertained. So if you should ever meet her, you do not need to ask if she has ever published anything. This may be upsetting for her, especially if it has been a long time and she has just been dropped by her publishing house. But if you should forget, and you do ask her, never then request the name she writes under. It will be her own. You will just not have remembered it.

5. But if, by some miracle, you do remember the author’s name and you also remember she wrote this story, do not talk about that lovely cat – the so-called death metaphor, and how clever it must have been to be able to turn on the kitchen tap and drink from it. Or how sweet it was when it would lie on the one from bottom step just so it could catch the comings and goings of the household. She may still be feeling raw about its death.

6. OK, it probably is safe to assume that when the husband in the story is pushed in front of the on-coming car and the wife just stands by and laughs, that may be a small clue that the author’s marriage has not been a success. However, do not assume that the author is a man hater (see point 9).

7. Or that the fictional husband had a rough deal. He really did not. You remember that paragraph about how he’d smell his food before he ate it, and also the one when he comments in public about the size of his wife’s thighs. Think whether you could get that level of detail in prose without there being some element of truth involved.

8. When the woman throws herself on the bathroom floor and weeps, feel free to notice for a moment the carefully chosen colours of the expensive Italian tiles, the smell of the English lavender soap she inhales, and how clean that floor must have been for her to feel comfortable about lying there for so long. And then cry with her. Do not smile, or wish you could slap her face and tell her how the middle classes have no problems really, or skip to the next paragraph to see how the husband is doing in hospital.

9. That moment when the hot young Italian waiter tells the woman she is too beautiful to weep for a dead husband does NOT come too soon after the husband’s eventual demise. In fact, if anything, it has been years in the planning, involving many many nights of imagining.

10. The woman in this story does not necessarily have a problem with control. Nor is she a hard-hearted money pinching bitch. She may just find it hard to express her feelings. She is relying on readers to pick up her sensitivity through the old creative writing adage – show not tell. Look how much she does for her husband; even arranging a sudden death for him. Which is surely what all of us desire, and more than most of us achieve. Remember the cat. On second thoughts, do not mention the cat.

 

And from Miroslava’s class…

instructions1

I have just finished working with the most wonderful group of writers on a Reading and Writing Short Stories course with the University of Kent. Writers we looked at included Janice Galloway, Jamaica Kincaid, David Foster Wallace, Tobias Wolf, Helen Simpson and so many more. Teaching a course like this is the chance for me to push my favourite writers! And to sit reading short stories for a day and call it work.

short stories

Below is a copy of the sheet I gave out at the end of the course, which I hope some of you may find useful. Do feel free to add more resources in the comments. This is just the start of a happy exploration for us all.

Websites and newsletters to find out more about the short story:

https://shortstops.info/

https://theshortstory.co.uk/resources/

https://commapress.co.uk/resources/

 Monthly visual prompt for writing:

https://visualverse.org/

Fairy stories and folk tales:

http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/

and on twitter – #folklorethursday

 List of magazines publishing short stories:

https://www.neonbooks.org.uk/big-list-literary-magazines/

And if in London, it’s worth visiting the National Poetry Library in the Royal Festival Hall (has all the literary magazines free to read):

https://www.nationalpoetrylibrary.org.uk/

For women’s magazine writing:

https://womagwriter.blogspot.com/

For short story workshops/readings/prompts:

http://www.thewordfactory.tv/site/

 To read short stories:

https://bookriot.com/2019/03/19/free-short-stories-online/

http://eastoftheweb.com/

And to listen to short stories:

https://www.newyorker.com/podcast/fiction

Finding new short story writers:

https://electricliterature.com/electric-lits-15-best-short-story-collections-of-2018/

https://www.standard.co.uk/shopping/esbest/books-dvds/best-new-short-story-collections-a3879791.html

Each one of the links above will lead you to many more, so have fun exploring!

 

“Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.”― Neil Gaiman