When is a competition not a competition? Getting caught by a vanity press

I was talking to a new writer the other day who was delighted that she had won another competition with United Press. I hesitated before warning her about them, without using the words vanity press. I said to beware of 'competitions' that have publication as the prize, but you have to buy a copy of the book in which your poem is published. I was caught by them early in my writing career. Like this woman, I was jumping up and down with glee when they sent me a proof page of my poem to approve, along with an order form asking for payment for the book. When the book arrived (and it was not cheap) the print quality was very poor, and it was clear from the content that they accept anything that is sent to them. I had submitted two poems, and a month or so later they sent a proof page for the other poem, which was to be published in another volume, so that they could get double the amount out of me, expecting me to buy another book from them. 

I kindly said to the writer I had met, 'Be careful of them; they charge you for the book. You shouldn't have to buy a copy of a book that you're published in.' Particularly if they claim that you have won a competition to be published! These outfits prey on people's desire to see their work in print. Better disappointment now than be sucked in to getting a book of poems 'accepted' by them, and being drawn into paying hundreds of pounds to get it published. They do not market these books; the only people who buy them are the writers and their families. Far better to self-publish using a print on demand, or to enter genuine competitions such as those listed on The Poetry Kit.

posted 25 March 2013

A Review of 'Prompted to Write'

My review of the book 'Prompted to Write', eds Victoria Filed and Zeeba Ansari, appears on Poetry Therapy News. Read it here

posted 24 November 2012

A writing detox 
I have noticed a change in the way I feel about my writing. Earlier this year, I decided to have a writing detox: to stop entering competitions and submitting to magazines; to stop responding to every request for me to write; to stop leading workshops. I was without focus, overwhelmed with requests and never satisfied with success, only craving more. It was when I noticed that I had not been shortlisted for a poetry competition and was annoyed about it that I knew I had to stop. I had just received first prize in a short story competition - what was wrong with me? 
I ran my last writing workshop early in July - something I had promised to do for a friend's charity fundraising efforts. It was fun, but exhausting, and with my health problems it took me days to recover my energy. I spent the Summer writing and reading, with my only commitment editing an anthology of poetry and fiction. I started to submit again after a few months, and have had some work accepted. I am quietly satisfied; not hungry for more success. 
A few weeks ago, I wrote a list of writing commitments, which I have pinned above my desk. This is to remind me of what I learned during my detox. Amongst the commitments are 'I shall write for writing's sake and for my own sake' and 'I shall not write to seek fame and fortune'. 
A by-product is that I have become less ambitious: I write for myself and share my writing when I'm ready; I know I'm not going to be picked up by some literary agent and have my books on the front table of Waterstone's; I am no longer envious of other writers who are more successful than I am. That envy was unattractive, something I didn't like about myself. I feel more at peace about my work than I have in a long time. Long may it last. If I start to go back to my old ways, I shall detox again.
posted 27 September 2012 

The words I wish my dad had written

I was delighted to receive a letter along with £50 in cash (never send money in the post, folks). It was from an old schoolfriend of my late father, sent from Co.Kildare, in return for a gift copy of my poetry book 'strange fruits', published in memory of a friend lost to cancer. The £50 is for Macmillan Cancer Support, with the comment: 'Like yourself we are constantly burying friends both young and old and the list is getting longer by the day - all from cancer'. He also made some generous comments about my poetry: 'I revisit your poems now and then and marvel at the effortless way you can instil deeper significance into the everyday things of life and your ability to be so evocative in a deceptively simple language'. 
I sometimes post comments on my writing from other writers, magazine editors etc, but the thoughts of the 'common reader' are as valuable and touching to me. 
My father was not one for letter-writing or giving praise and encouragement. The letter I received from his old friend contains the kind of words I wish my dad had said or written. Some people's own hurts are too great to notice, nurture or appreciate the talents and efforts of others, This was the case with my dad.
The two men both came from humble beginnings, born in Mitchelstown Co Cork in 1928. Both were called Jim. Jim McCarthy was left to be raised by an aunt and uncle, his parents fleeing to England supposedly because there was no work in Ireland. I later found out that my grandparents were not married when Dad was born, and it was impossible to stay and be accepted as an unmarried mother in Catholic rural Ireland. Jim Parker, my dad's friend, also had family disruptions as his mother became ill when he was very young, and his sister, aged only 14 at the time, took on the role of parent.
From what I understand, my dad met his father only once during his childhood (up to that point he had believed that his aunt and uncle were his parents), and did not meet his mother until he was 16. The agreement was that he would go to his parents in England when his schooling was finished; so he was sent to a strange country to live with people he didn't know. 
Jim McCarthy, though a bright scholar, went to work on building sites as a labourer. As Jim Parker told me, 'There were many Irish brains carrying hods on the building sites of England'. Jim McCarthy married my mother, another Irish immigrant, had five children that he could not love, and drank to excess. Jim Parker joined the Irish Army. The last letter that Jim McCarthy wrote to Jim Parker said, 'What a fool you are to get involved with that lot'. They lost touch after that. I found Jim Parker in 2007, seven years after my father died. At the end of his career he had risen to Chief of Staff of the Irish Army.
Two young boys that shared the same schoolroom travelled in such different directions. Both had large families (Jim McCarthy had five children, Jim Parker six); Jim McCarthy stayed in the same town in England where he arrived, aged 16, until his death, aged 72. Jim Parker travelled the world.
I would like to think that my dad would have been proud of my writing, my publications. I only started writing during the year of his death. But even if he had lived longer, I believe he would never have stopped drinking, and would remain unable to enjoy the successes and achievements of his children.
posted 13 December 2011

I Remember as a writing prompt

I'm reposting this in response to a request for writing prompts from a Twitter follower. The exercise was suggested by Siri Hutvedt in her excellent new book The Shaking Woman Or A History Of My Nerves. Please note the pdf here is incorrect: Joe Brainard's book is actually available (not out of print, as I first thought). Read more here.

posted 14 November 2011

Why I cry at concerts

Is it the songs, the artists, lamenting lost youth and lost friends, or the joy of being in an audience? Whether sobbing at Roy Harper, blubbing at Jimmy Page or weeping at Neil Young, why do I cry at concerts? Read here.

posted 9 November 2011

ME3 and 'A Walk On The Strood Side'

The launch of the ME3 album - 47 tracks of Medway Marvellousness in aid of Oxjam - has reminded me of this piece I wrote in 2005. It appeared in the Urban Fox 'River' anthology. The artwork for the ME3 album is a view to the Strood side of Rochester Bridge as it was when I wrote the piece. The civic centre mentioned in the piece, including the former Aveling Porter factory site, a lovely red brick building, have been demolished. The area where I walked so often, my thinking place, a place I loved, is now a car park. Here is 'A Walk On The Strood Side'.

posted 8 October 2011

Livin' Lovin' Maid

Five years ago, I had the good fortune to be a columnist on BBC Radio 4's Home Truths (as Maria Bradley). The first of my columns was about my love of Led Zeppelin, and the script is reproduced as part of this article

Recording my column for Home Truths was the least glamorous experience imaginable. It was long after John Peel's death, but I was excited to be part of the programme, and to be getting paid for my writing (an all too rare experience). I didn't get to go to the BBC to record; it was recorded at County Hall, Maidstone, in a 'studio' that doubled up as a photocopier room. I was shown in and left to it. 'Put the headphones on and someone in London will speak to you and tell you what to do.' Not so much as a cup of tea. However, the editing and recording experience was invaluable. The first page and a half was cut from my initial script, and other edits suggested before agreeing a final script. I was guided through the recording, asked to put emphasis on some bits, to read with a smile in my voice on others. When the final version went out on air, further cuts had been made to fit the exact five minutes that columns took up. Pauses were also cut - radio hates dead air. 

I was then commissioned to do a further column, and would have done more, but the programme came to an end. It was a great experience, and I found it easy to write this kind of material. My radio experience came to an end after this, but I would love to do more. Hear my second Home Truths column here

As a quid pro quo for Peter Cook's article about me, and for his kind promotion of my book, 'strange fruits', here's a link to Peter's new book, Punk Rock People Management. Do take a look at his site and learn lessons for business from rock'n'roll.

posted 7 September 2011

Retreat centre or cult?

I have just returned from a mini-writers' retreat in Somerset - just four writers in a cottage on the site of a 'Self-realization, meditation and healing centre'. It was a beautiful setting, very peaceful (apart from the church clock, which struck on the quarter hour all day and all night). Everyone was very smiley at the retreat centre - too smiley - and all around were photos of a white woman in prayer poses with the unlikely name of Mata Yoganandra Mahasaya Dharma. The smiley woman who showed us around and invited us to join their 'pure meditation' sessions told us that ten people lived there and they ran courses in 'Pure Meditation' and 'Spiritual Healing' for visitors. Some of the rules seemed restrictive, though understandable if on a short retreat. (We must confess to breaking the no-alcohol rule, and giggling like schoolgirls on cider as we downed wine in the cottage garden.) But in the long-term, to live without TV and internet, cut off from the world, seems extreme. ipods were banned, but there were CD players (presumably to play the guru's CDs of inspirational thoughts); DVD watching was allowed, but not watching TV.
Being a writer and a bit of a nosey person, i asked the man serving the food what his story was, why was it that people came to live there? He was giving nothing away about his own story, but smiled serenely and told me that there were some wonderful stories in the Mata Yoganandra's book 'Come'. I became more uneasy when I discovered that the people living there referred to themselves as 'The Family'. Leaflets and statues around the premises were vague, a mish-mash of beliefs, with St Francis of Assisi nestling in the garden not far from a sign about fairies.
On returning home, I discovered some information about the centre on a website about people recovering from cults, and a news articles about a court case where a man who had been a member of 'The Family', and had left, successfully sued the organisation after they persuaded him to sign over his £800,000 house to the them. The so-called Mata Yogananda Mahasaya Dharma is in fact called Rena Denton. See her picture here.
I suppose we should have realised that the inexpensive cost of the cottage and the warm and friendly reception we received were too good to be true. It was a lovely weekend, but the unease I feel about the doings of the Self-realization, meditation and healing centre means that I won't be returning to that setting. 
posted 15 August 2011

Amy's addictions

What is it about the death of an icon that touches us? The death of a drinking, hard-drug-taking young woman? I shed tears yesterday as the news came through of Amy Winehouse found dead in her flat, used the words 'sadness' and 'tragedy' on my Facebook and Twitter feeds. Similar comments followed from others - then the backlash. 'Why should I care about someone who made the choices she did?'; 'It's not a tragedy, the children killed in Norway is a tragedy'. 

Today, I withdrew from social networking, not wishing to argue further with those who see addiction as a lifestyle choice, like deciding which fashion to follow. I could no longer read about people seeing Amy Winehouse's death as her 'own fault', or stating that she had chances and choices that she failed to take. One plain comment I read yesterday was 'why should we care about someone who took hard drugs?' I have a clear and unpleasant memory of the person who made the last of these comments, turning up at a concert paralytic drunk, barely able to stand, in the company of others in the same state. Said person did clean up their act, but for some years, this person was like this every weekend. But this was only alcohol, wasn't it, not hard drugs? 

Why is there such misunderstanding about addiction? As i questioned my tears over Amy Winehouse, and those I shed over the hugely talented Paula Yates some years ago, I realised that these are also about the addicted people I know and have known. My father - emotionally distant, damaged - never stopped drinking until the day he died at the age of 72. It took an enormous toll on family life, my mental health and that of my mother and siblings. He never acknowledged that he was an alcoholic; he was a man who 'liked a drink', and somehow managed to hold down a job all his drinking life. And I'm not talking about just 'liking a drink'; one memory is of coming downstairs early one winter morning to find my dad lifting a whiskey bottle out of the sideboard and pouring himself a tot. Surprised at seeing me, he smiled and said, 'It's just to keep the cold out.' His hand was shaking as he raised the glass to his lips.

Another family member has struggled for years with drink and drug abuse. Clean and sober now for several years, it's a daily battle. Drinking and drug-taking, or abstaining from the substances you crave - either way it's a hard road.

I used to be angry with my father, thought that he had choices, chances, that it was his own fault. Then someone came into my life who was a recovering alcoholic, sober for twenty plus years. 'You think your dad was a bastard, don't you?', he said. I took some persuading otherwise, and it took me years to work through the new information I was given. Alcoholism is an illness; it's like an allergy to alcohol. Where others can take a drink or occasionally use recreational drugs, the addict cannot. And there is a spiritual emptiness in an addict, which the drugs and alcohol cannot fill. It's a bottomless pit. The addict cannot choose to stop; no-one can intervene and make them stop. There may be a moment of clarity when they are ready to give themselves up to rehab, to a twelve-step programme. They can never be 'cured', they are always 'recovering'.

I bless this person for helping me to understand. The hurt I felt as the child of an alcoholic will never leave me, but now I understand.

I wonder if the people making these negative comments about Amy's addictions were hurt like I was, whether they are trying to apportion blame for that hurt to their friends or relatives who could not help their addictions. Living with an addict is a nightmare, and even harder to make sense of when you are a child. And lest we apportion blame to others, let us remember those times when we have drunk too much as a way of dealing with difficult times and feelings, have worked too hard and neglected those we loved, have abused food by bingeing or starving ourselves. Let's not be so quick to cast the first stone at the 27-year-old woman whose talent is now lost to the world, whose personality was drowned in her addictions, and who had an illness, which she did not make a choice to have. 

posted 24 July 2011

'strange fruits' - Cultured Llama's first publication arrives

An emotional day; the first batch of 'strange fruits' arrived this morning. Great excitement at Cultured Llama HQ ensued; neither my husband/editor nor I could settle to any work and ended up going out for an early celebratory lunch. Happiness and pride are tinged with sadness, as the reason why the book has been produced is in memory of my friend Karen McAndrew and to raise funds for Macmillan Cancer Support. I would much rather have Karen than the book, but let's hope it will raise lots of money for people living with cancer and their families. 

The early arrival of the books has caught us on the hop. The printers, Lightning Source, truly lived up to their name in this instance. So we are going ahead with the planned launch date of 9 July, by which time the blurb and cover image will be on Amazon and the WordAid sites, and we hope to add a Paypal button to the Cultured Llama site. More funds go to Macmillan Cancer Support if purchased directly.

Medway Broadside have posted this article on how the book and Cultured Llama came about.
posted 17 June 2011