It’s the Festivals again! (soon)

Last year, an award-winning spoken word performer asked me why I didn’t get my own show on the Fringe. My response, after feeling flattered that she’d even ask, was: “Don’t wanna.” It’s a lot of work and I don’t have enough to say to fill 50 minutes; also, standing on the Royal Mile and thrusting flyers in people’s faces is soul-destroying as well as being hard on your feet, not to mention the part where the only two people who turn up are 1) your partner and 2) some guy who wandered in thinking it was sketch comedy with free beer.

However, as usual, I’ll be performing in a variety of shows in August, which is always a thrill. Mainly because I can just turn up and say stuff, and not have to deal with the logistics.

Confirmed as of 14 July:

Sunday 10 August, 9pm, Scottish Storytelling Centre (Venue 30)
Loud Poets
Featuring the best spoken word artists from Scotland and beyond.

Somewhere between Monday 11 August and Thursday 14 August, time tbc, BBC @ Potterow
BBC Poetry Slam 2014

Friday 15 August, 630-9pm, Golden Hare Books
Dactyl 2 launch
Cake, blether, fizz, and nonsense! And issue 2 of Dactyl. And some readings therefrom.

Saturday 16 August, 635pm, Capital Bar + Club, Cowgate (Venue 263)
Up Next
Amy Goodchild’s compilation show.
Today’s theme: Future

Sunday 17 August, details tbc
The Festival of Politics
A Rally and Broad event

Wednesday 20 August, 12:20pm, Stand in the Square, St Andrew’s Square
All Back to Bowie’s
An #indyref mix of politics, poetry, polemic and pop.
Today’s theme: Suffragette City

Published in: on June 30, 2014 at 8:07 am  Leave a Comment  

The poet as zombie; or, Should this be my new author photo?

Since I’m a huge proponent of “doing interesting things because it’s fun”, I volunteered for the zombie game 2.8 Hours Later. I had to go to Zombie School and learn how to shuffle and groan convincingly, and then I was a zombie for one of the four nights they were in Edinburgh. My groaning made me sound like “zombie with bronchitis” so I switched to weird high-pitched intakes of breath, which were fun and didn’t strain my voice. And I shuffled, oh did I shuffle. Here’s what I originally looked like:

IMAG0778

Then I swapped the army fatigues with another player for technical reasons and looked more normal, for versions of “normal” which involve fake blood spattered over my face.

I love immersive experiences, although I doubt I’ll be writing any “I am a zombie” poems any time soon (though you never know). To be honest, I am not a huge fan of the genre. But I did like dressing up and shuffling after people who, though they knew perfectly well I was NOT a zombie, were involved enough in the game to be scared when I appeared out of nowhere behind them, groaning.

And yes, I did go home on the bus looking like that, though somehow managed not to freak any mundanes in the process, or perhaps they were just used to that sort of thing on a bank holiday weekend.

Published in: on May 26, 2014 at 6:30 pm  Comments (1)  

Blog chain: The Writing Process

I was tagged by Sara Sheridan to continue this blog chain. (Thanks, Sara!)

1) What am I working on?

At the moment, two main projects – a poetry collection titled Blood Libel, and a novel. I suppose it’s technically two novels but I haven’t decided which one I want to focus on yet, so I’ll just leave it vague for now.

Blood Libel is also somewhat vague, but it’s about Jewish women. Modern, Biblical, historical; monologues, commentaries, prayers; mothers, immigrants, Holocaust victims; heroic, quizzical, annoying. And then some. I’m basically writing many poems and seeing what happens. So far I have enough for a pamphlet, but the goal is a full-length collection.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

One of the aspects I’m exploring is genetic history – there are many diseases that are far more prevalent in the Ashkenazi Jewish community than in the general population, which obviously have devastating effects. (On the other hand, modern genetic testing means that people intending to have children can check whether they and their potential partners are both carriers; see Dor Yeshorim, for instance.) I haven’t found any poetry collections – or, indeed, many prose works – that address these issues within the context of Jewish culture.

3) Why do I write what I do?

I write whatever interests me, is the short answer. My only published novel to date is a historical novel about the daughter of a high-ranking Nazi; the novel making the rounds is about an American graduate student at Oxford, and the one I’ve put in the drawer is about a girl who discovers a lost festival in Edinburgh. My first (unpublished) full-length poetry collection is about cancer, but not entirely. Certain themes keep emerging, of course, but it would probably take someone with more objectivity to discover them.

4) How does my writing process work?

More sporadically than I’d like. Poems tend to be drafted either by hand or on the computer, and then edited around 4-6 times before I get to the point where I really know what they’re about; I then tweak individual words or line breaks, and then it’s done. (Occasionally, I never get to the tweaking part and they go into the ‘deferred’ folder.) Short stories work the same way, come to think of it. Novels are a lot more complex, of course!

I tried to find someone to carry on the chain. Unfortunately, thanks to a combination of unwellness (thankfully the norovirus only lasted about twelve hours, but it wasn’t pleasant!) and computer woes (kernel panics! – kind of like norovirus for computers, because it dumps core all over the screen), I haven’t been able to locate anyone. But! – if you want to answer the questions, post them on your blog or whatever, and then post the link in the comments, you can carry on the chain yourself. And I’ll try to put those links in this entry as well.

How I ended up in the trailer of a Scottish Independence film

I live in Scotland, and I’ll be voting in the referendum, but I haven’t been terribly outgoing about my opinions, apart from having a YES badge on one of my jackets (which I haven’t worn for weeks). I’m therefore somewhat bemused by finding myself in trailer #1 for Scotland Yet.

It all started when Kirsty Logan, in her capacity as Books Editor of The List, put out a call for flash fiction pieces about an independent Scotland. I took up the challenge and wrote “Essay Topic: How the Wars of Scottish Independence led to a Better Scotland” – it was something of a parody of how some history essays are basically The Bits Everyone Knows, with a few trivial and even apocryphal details. (Does anyone who isn’t a medieval historian know anything about Alfred the Great apart from maybe he burned the cakes? That sort of thing.)

Kirsty didn’t take the piece. Sob! But as she published a poem of mine in the same issue, I rapidly dried my tears and looked around to see what else I could do with the story. (Also, you can read the excellent pieces she did select.)

I ended up adapting it as a performance piece: “How the Wars of Scottish Independence led to a Better Scotland, by Fiona, Age 10″. I debuted it at the National Library of Scotland’s Burns Night Slam, and it was something of a tribute to my improvement as a performance poet that I made it to the final round, placing third, whereas the previous year I’d been knocked out in the first. A fellow competitor, upon tendering his congratulations, suggested that I might have won if I’d performed the Independence piece last, as it got such a good reaction from the audience, but unfortunately you never know with such things, and anyway I’m not sure I had another piece strong enough to launch me into the final. However, I was quite pleased with myself, and later spent my prize of a £10 Blackwell’s gift voucher on my current Moleskine notebook.

Jenny Lindsay, who is one of the grandes dames of the Edinburgh spoken word scene [in the sense of experience and prominence rather than age, I hastily add], enjoyed the piece so much that she invited me to perform it at a National Collective event in February. National Collective is a group of artists and creative who are pro-independence. This particular event had poems and memoirs and I think there was a short film, or possibly some slides? Anyway, I did my piece and I think it went well.

Two nights later, when the cabaret Jenny organises with Rachel McCrum (Rally and Broad) needed a last-minute performer due to illness, they contacted me and I went on that night, and did the independence piece as part of my set. I vaguely remember being told that someone was filming, but I didn’t really think about it.

…until a friend tagged me in a Facebook comment last week, and today I finally went to look at what she was referring to.

(Rally and Broad starts at 2:03 and I’m on for a whole nine seconds not much later than that.) I should probably open my eyes wider when I perform. Or memorise my pieces so I’m not looking down at the paper so much. On the other hand, I’m glad I wore lipstick!

(Because lipstick is always a plus.)

Anyway, I wasn’t expecting to see myself wedged in between snippets of intelligent creative people saying interesting things (Jenny is there, as is Alan Bissett, and many other people). And some chickens. Not sure how the chickens would vote, to be honest. But I’m happy that my performance was interesting enough to be spliced into the trailer, and I look forward to seeing the full-length version.

And to the referendum.

Roundup of what I’ve been up to

Yeah, I guess that ‘post more’ resolution didn’t come to much. So here’s a quick roundup of the past few months:

My poem “Compline”, one of my favourites, was in Gutter issue 10.

“Shabbat in the Rockies” which (as previously mentioned) won first place in the Mountaineering Council of Scotland poetry competition, was published in their journal. Thankfully, it was on the website before that and I realised that the final line had been omitted, in time to have it corrected for the print version. (The stanza breaks aren’t there either, in case you’re wondering why I wrote such a long poem without any!)

I won’t try to repeat my victory, because I’m a judge this year. If you’re a writer based in the UK, please do enter. The deadline is 31 August.

I had three poems published in Neon Magazine, which leads me to my big news:

My second poetry chapbook, Cancer Villanelle is in press!

Krishan Coupland, editor extraordinaire of Neon, decided to start publishing pamphlets and chapbooks. (He defines the former as containing just a few poems, or one piece of prose; the latter are are up to forty pages.) I went through the usual submission process, and came out a winner. We’re currently in the “firming up the contract” phase and once that’s done we can move on to the editorial stuff. I’m hoping there won’t be much to do on that front, since all but one the poems have been published, but of course there might be tweaks. I tend to feel that poems should be published in a book in the same form they were first let loose on the world, but I’m willing to be advised otherwise; I guess it’s partly that I always find things to change, and if I don’t draw a line under it somewhere, I will possibly never stop.

Recently, I spent two weeks at the Banff Centre on their Spoken Word programme. I’m deeply grateful to the Banff Centre’s generous financial aid programme (and to my sponsor – hope you liked the pie chart!) and to Creative Scotland for their financial assistance. I think that needs to be a separate blog entry, but if you’re a spoken word artist, or trying to be one, you should apply if at all possible. I’m still not sure I’m a spoken word artist, though enough of my fellow course members said “really?” that I should probably stop thinking that.

I’ll definitely have a new entry up on May 12, as I’ve been tagged in a bloggy chain letter about the writing process. I’ll be following in the footsteps of Sara Sheridan, author of the Mirabelle Bevan mysteries (among other great books). Now I need to tag a writer to follow me!

And to end this entry on a funny note: last week, just before the bank holiday weekend, I received an unexpected package. (Turned out to be a gift from my boss: this hamper, including the cookbook. I heart my boss!) My appreciation of the Fedex person, who left it rather than making me have to schedule a redelivery, was augmented by my amusement at the way they hid it under the doormat.

box under mat

Try to spot the box under the mat! Don’t worry if you can’t find it! It’s very well-hidden!

New year, new stuff

Happy new year to all. One of the things I sort of like about the UK is that businesses (not shops and restaurants, of course) close down over Christmas and New Year, which can be relaxing, but on the other hand if you are waiting for money or need to get something done, you can basically kiss an entire fortnight goodbye.

However, I accomplished many things over the holiday period – not as much as I would have liked, but that’s probably standard.

I read ten books, two of them from the Poetry Books Society which I love to bits because I get 20 books of poetry a year for £160 (which is about the price I’d pay for them anyway, but it’s far more convenient to have them arrive in the post) and they are all the new stuff so I’m not perpetually years behind. More like months behind, really.

I wrote the first of 52 poems prompted by Jo Bell’s Fifty-Two project (the other 51 are to follow on a quasi-weekly basis).

I wrote a grant application, and put a new chapbook manuscript together specifically for a competition (which worked much better than I thought it would), and edited a poem that wasn’t working as a poem into something else it works much better as. I sent out at least 25 submissions. I, er, ate more M&S All Butter Viennese Biscuits than one person really has the right to eat.

And I made soup and lasagne and risotto (not in the same pan), and did multiple loads of laundry, and caught up on the Doctor Who specials, and backed up my hard drive. So there’s some virtue in there along with the butter cookies.

Also, I’ve been off Facebook for two months. I was getting annoyed with how much time it was sucking out of my life, and haven’t found a reason to go back yet, though I probably will if only to adjust all the notification settings. I have, of course, found a new time-wasting site, that being Twitter, but at least there I see many poetry contest notifications and alerts about lost teddy bears. If you’re over there (and even if you’re not), I’m @tsrosenberg

Hopefully I will blog a bit more this year.

Published in: on January 6, 2014 at 3:52 pm  Leave a Comment  

Mountaineering Council of Scotland 2013 Poetry Prize

My week of many events was fantastic – people actually came to the events, which always surprises me even though it really shouldn’t. I had eight at my Leith Library reading, and the Dead Poets Slam drew about sixty people, based on a rough estimate and some frantic head-counting. The winner was W.B. Yeats, followed by Siegfried Sassoon and Norman MacCaig, which is partly why I love Dead Poet Slams because where else are you going to find a line-up like that? Many thanks to Shore Poets, the Scottish Book Trust and Book Week Scotland, and Blind Poetics.

And things have continued to be great. I knew about this a couple of weeks ago, but it’s now officially announced that I won the Mountaineering Council of Scotland 2013 Poetry Prize with a poem titled “Shabbat in the Rockies”. I wasn’t even sure it would work for the competition, since most of the previous winners are about mountain climbing, whereas this is about a Jewish family fleeing persecution in the Carpathians – which probably explains the comment that it was “an unusual but definite winner”. Hey, I’ve been unusual all my life; why stop now?

It’s particularly amusing because, being from the American middle west, I’m not used to mountains. When I’m on a plane to the states, I know I’m home when I see the water towers. But then again, the images that crop up in my poems are overtly different from what I assume about myself – I’m a cat person, but I only ever write poems about dogs; I am not particularly fond of gardens, but they cropped up constantly
The poem isn’t currently available online, though I think it will be at some point. I’ll link to it then.

Published in: on December 3, 2013 at 3:49 pm  Leave a Comment  

Book Week Scotland and me!

Book Week Scotland is nearly here, and I am involved in many events (both BWS and not), so here’s a round-up of events you might want to go to if you’re in Edinburgh. If you’re not interested in these, there are zillions of others, so hopefully you can find something you like!

Sunday 24 November, Shore Poets (Henderson’s @ St. John’s), 745pm (bar from 715pm), £5/£3: Shore Poets November: Gerrie Fellowes, Christine de Luca, Tracey S. Rosenberg. Also, you can put your name in the hat for one of two open mic spots! And you could win the lemon cake in the raffle. (I am also writing a poem about the lemon cake which I will read for the first time ever during my set.) All in all it is a pretty cool event.

Monday 25 November, Edinburgh Reads, Leith Library, 645pm, free: I’m appearing at a Book Week Scotland event at Leith Library, discussing my novel, poetry, and anything else the audience wants to hear about. According to the blurb in the Edinburgh Reads brochure, I am “a much-loved contributor to the Edinburgh spoken word scene”, which may be one of the nicest things anyone’s ever said about me. Copies of The Girl in the Bunker and Lipstick is Always a Plus will be available at a discount!

Monday 25 November, Doctor Who Open Mic Night, Blind Poetics, 730pm, free: A charity fundraiser for the Lullaby Trust. I’ll be headlining (after I rush up from Leith) alongside Dalek-master Kevin Cadwallender and sf poet extraordinaire Russell Jones, and there will be plenty of open mic entertainment.

Saturday 30 November, Dead Poets Slam, The Bongo Club, 7pm, free: rounding off Book Week Scotland, it’s a Dead Poets Slam I am organising in conjunction with Inky Fingers. It’s a poetry slam with a difference! Every slammer performs the work of a dead poet. Props, costumes, and over-the-top theatrics are encouraged, and prizes will be awarded to the top performers. Will Sylvia Plath go head-to-head with Emily Dickinson? Could William McGonagall trounce William Wordsworth in a nail-biting final round? Come enjoy three rounds of classic poetry brought to life!

Adjudicatory, part 2

And so I judged a poetry competition, and since I always like seeing how things work from the inside, here’s my judge’s report (though unfortunately none of the poems themselves are available to be read, except one of the commendeds, which had unknown to me at the time already been published). The report has been sent to all the finalists, if not all the entrants, and apparently was deemed helpful.

Judge’s Report: Thynks Open Poetry Competition 2013

Winner: Picture the Moment
Runner-up: A Walk in the Wood
Commended: A Closing, Masters of the Air, So Many Obstacles to Overcome

This was my first time judging a poetry competition, and I was quite excited! I received nineteen poems which had been selected from over a hundred (judging from the numbering system) by Pam Brindle and Christine Michael. I’m grateful to them for making this selection, and to Christine for keeping in touch and sending the final poems to me in a timely manner. Of course, I’d also like to congratulate all the poets who entered; writing is difficult enough, and to send your work out to complete strangers can be terrifying, so submitting work to a competition is in and of itself an act of bravery.

First, I read all the poems carefully without making notes or doing any mental sifting. Then I let them sit for a day, read them again, and began separating out potential winners. I ended up with seven, and considered those as a group. I eliminated a further two, leaving me with a shortlist of five. I made notes, I circled phrases and words of interest, and I made my selections.

A few things I noticed:

- Birds! Lots and lots of birds. As someone whose main connection to birds is watching the local seagull population tear open rubbish bags in the street when the council doesn’t collect them swiftly enough, I was intrigued by this avian overload. My own lack of bird experience didn’t prevent me from appreciating the poems, as two poems with birds as their central images made my top five. In addition to those, we had quite a few New Zealand birds (some of which I had never heard of before), three different poems invoking skylarks, and a chaffinch.

- A range of geographical settings. In addition to New Zealand, there were poems set in Ireland and Japan, and one which began and ended in Ireland with a wide-ranging journey to Morocco, Babylon, and Malta in between. As a expatriate and traveller myself, I appreciate glimpses into other countries, though the mere fact of a foreign setting wasn’t enough to propel a poem into the final round.

- Punctuation at the ends of lines. Many poems – even those who made it to the final five – failed to use punctuation for end-stopped lines (lines in which the natural pause comes at the end of the line). This sounds nitpicky, but as I was reminded in poem after poem, it is crucial not to be lazy. Don’t assume that simply because you have reached the end of the line, you don’t need any punctuation there. Enjambment is a powerful tool, but if the second line doesn’t continue the idea in the first line, consider carefully whether you need to indicate that mental pause. If you don’t include punctuation where it’s needed, the reader keeps mentally stopping and restarting, because they are expecting the thought/image to continue on, whereas they actually find themselves moving to a new thought or image.

In the spirit of the competition I will use an example from a poem about birds: John Greenleaf Whittier’s “What the Birds Said” (the full poem can be found at http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174760). Here’s the penultimate stanza:

So to me, in a doubtful day
Of chill and slowly greening spring,
Low stooping from the cloudy gray,
The wild-birds sang or seemed to sing.

There’s no punctuation mark at the end of the first line because the first two lines are a complete thought. If you were reading this aloud, you would not stop after “day”. The second and third lines do end with punctuation marks, though, because we pause, maybe take a breath, let the image sink in before continuing on. Remember that even if we read a poem silently, it still speaks in our mind!

After I chose my top five poems, it took me a little while longer to settle on a winner. I narrowed it down to three, and examined each poem closely to consider its strengths as well as the places it didn’t work as well as it could have. My three commended poems all displayed good images and interesting language. “Masters of the Air” offers some lovely pictures of the ways in which birds possess the sky, though in the end I felt there was little more to the poem than description. “So Many Obstacles to Overcome” (which, from its epigram, is modelled on work by the Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz) is a sonnet which doesn’t stick to strict meter, and as a result the structure echoes the uncertainties of the speaker, who is trying to gain stability in a relationship which has caused upheaval. However, although the sky, the road, and the glass of wine all demonstrate the stability which has been lost and is sought for again, in the second stanza the imagery becomes vague, and I would have liked a closer look at the implied destruction. Finally, “A Closing” settles into a quiet repetition, simple without being simplistic, but the beginning and end could be stronger; in fact, I wondered if removing the first four lines wouldn’t improve the poem considerably.

My runner-up, “A Walk in the Wood”, made me laugh out loud. It’s cheerful nonsense with many funny images and rhymes. (It also reminded me that, as someone whose native language is American English, the voice in my head doesn’t rhyme “prawns” with “thorns”.) This poem, like “A Closing”, could have been shortened a bit – the spaceman stanza suddenly removes the poem from its woodland setting, and the characters aren’t nearly as nonsensical as the animals which have already been introduced, so there’s a weak point in an otherwise charming poem.

My winner, “Picture the Moment”, brings birds to life with carefully-considered and exact similes. I felt as though I were present alongside the speaker, watching the school field and the birds who take the place of the absent children. Although the final lines lack the immediacy and striking alliteration of the earlier stanzas, the poem overall uses the metaphor of birds to develop a narrative of a speaker moving from isolation in a late cold winter afternoon towards a place of brightness.

Again, my congratulations to all the entrants, and especially to the winner.

Published in: on October 9, 2013 at 11:14 am  Leave a Comment  

Adjudicatory, part 1

I always wondered how people got gigs judging poetry competitions. I mean, if you win a major prize I’m sure you get deluged with requests, but there have to be other methods. And it turns out that – as happens often in this life – sometimes you just have to ask, preferably without wanting any money in return.

So, having volunteered, I am judging the Thynks 2013 Open Poetry Competition. Thynks has other competitions to enter, including a poetry competition for poems up to 80 lines, so have a look.

Shortlisted poems are now, even as I type, popping up in my inbox as the organiser forwards them on. Rather exciting – who knows what awaits me?

(Okay, technically, the organiser does.)

I’ve never done this sort of thing before – though I have enough relevant experience that I’m confident of being able to do a good job! – so I’m going to discuss my process here on the blog.

Now, the procedure in this case is that the organiser of the competition and another person have selected the nineteen shortlisted poems from the full set of submissions. (Judging from the numbers on the documents I’m receiving, there were just over a hundred poems.) In other words, there were filter judges and a final judge. From my experience, this is fairly standard though not universal. Personally, I prefer when the final judge reads everything – such as in this year’s Yeovil Prize, when Neil Astley read all 386 submissions. (Oh, and yes, that is one of my poems he commended. Huzzah!) But it isn’t always possible, sometimes because of the sheer number of entries, and of course the final judge might prefer to have a smaller, already-filtered selection to choose from. In my case, the structure of the competition was already in place, and as it’s my first time judging, I thought I might as well start with a smaller number and see how it works.

And now all the poems have arrived! I am going to print them out individually (on the backs of old drafts) and read them without making any decisions or judgments, or making any notes. Having only nineteen means I can probably do that in one sitting, though of course I’ll take a break if I start feeling as though my brain is tired. For better or worse, these are the poems I have, and it’s inevitable that they’ll end up being compared to each other, so I want to get a full sense of the range.

Then I want to set them all aside for at least a day and see which of them stick in my mind. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll win, but I strongly suspect that the poems which end up in the top three will be the ones with strong imagery, narrative, and word choice. If a poem haunts me, or makes me want to grab the nearest person and say “listen to this!”, it’s worth further consideration.

Once I come back to the poems, I’ll start making decisions. Honesty time: I’m not entirely sure how I’ll do that. Scary.

Claire Askew, in her judge’s report for the Sentinel Literary Quarterly Poetry Competition, talks about how she used to divide the poems into no/maybe/yes piles but decided to change to no/maybe, as sometimes poems grew on her with multiple readings. (And can I say how thrilled I am that Claire not only awarded one of my poems second place, but chose a second for her commendeds?)

So that’s one possibility for ensuring that the best poems are selected as winners, but I’d love to hear from other judges. (I promise I will not be using the staircase method.) Poetry judges: how do you do it? Poetry competition entrants: what do you think?

Published in: on September 16, 2013 at 3:07 pm  Leave a Comment  
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