Poetry and Prison

Watching this inspirational TED talk by the poet Cristina Domenech took me back to my prison days – my years working at HMP Low Newton Womens Prison, Durham. During my time there as a teacher and later as a manager I was involved in many creative projects especially with Writer-in-Residence Wendy Robertson and I was never anything other than convinced of the huge life affirming and life changing potential of writing in prison

This a very moving example of just such a project and it’s outcomes.  If you like to read more about my 25 years inside prison click HERE

I also have a prison story (a long short story) available on Kindle HERE on Amazon

Writing About Sex

This is my most viewed blog post ever! (First published August 2013.) At the risk of repeating myself here it is again….


One of the most daunting things for a writer can be writing a sex scene. Writing about sex is something many writers avoid or manage through implication or omission; and sometimes that’s fine, sometimes that works best with the fabric of the novel. But sex is a huge part of life and while we may not want gratuitous sex in our novel – we are not writing erotica – sex may be integral and therefore hard to avoid. So why do we avoid writing about sex? I would suggest there are several compelling reasons:

  • we don’t want readers to take the book for something it’s not – in my experience it takes only the odd sex scene for certain readers to do a nudge, nudge, wink, wink, or quote page numbers at you, which can feel very demeaning
  • embarrassment – we think of all the people we know who will read it – our families, children, friends, our mothers!
  • readers will assume because we are writing about sex, however deviant it might be, that we have been there and done that or perhaps want to – assumptions which are often crude and untrue.
  • the language for writing about sex is tricky. What words do we use? The naming of parts – genitalia – can give us a real headache or should I say – ball ache?

We don’t seem to mind writing about every awful thing from say, the horrible death of a child, to violent, abusive relationships, cruel assassinations, prostitution etc but we shy away from writing a sex scene.

Barbara Kingsolver in Writers On Writing – Collected Essays from The New York Times says:

‘Great sex is more rare in art than life because it’s harder to do. To write about sex at all, we must first face down the polite pretence that it doesn’t matter to us and acknowledge that in the grand scheme of things, nothing could matter more. In the quiet of our writing rooms we have to corral the beast and find a way to tell of its terror and its beauty. We must own up to its gravity. We must also accept an uncomfortable intimacy with our readers in the admission that, yes, we’ve both done this. We must warn our mothers before the book comes out…’

When my novel The Orchid House came out – it’s a novel in part about sexual obsession – my mother was no longer alive but I warned my father who likes to read everything I write. I simply said, ‘there’s a lot of sex in it dad, so you might not want to read it.’ I gave the same warning to my children.

When I first sent The Orchid House to my agent her response was ‘the sex is great, put more in it, the French do …’ So I did, but ultimately that felt wrong and when the book came back into my hands – after what was a close call with a big publisher – I made sure the writing about sex was as I’d originally intended.

So we know the territory of writing a sex scene but how to do it?

Firstly when writing about sex I think you have to decide to throw caution to the wind and forget your blushes,then:

  • don’t deal in clichés especially when it comes to genitalia, penetration and orgasm – no throbbing members, or crashing waves.
  • remember sex is much more than this final act,
  • choose your language carefully, but be specific.
  • Make it unique, come at it from what Natalie Goldberg describes as ‘across the shore…’ not necessarily head on – come at from eating a melon, swimming naked, from silk, from chocolate, use what is sensual.
  • think of the body as your landscape,
  • write freely with no self-censorship go for it, then see where you arrive, you can always edit it later
  • write as if no one is ever going to read it then have the courage to use it

‘Eroticism is a big word. If you are nervous look around the room. Begin with something small and concrete – your teacup in its saucer, the thin slice of apple, an Oreo cookie crumb on your red lips…’ N Goldberg

Good Luck!


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Kate Tempest

A friend from Aussie emailed me recently and suggested I check out poet, spoken word artist, musician, playwright and novelist, the amazing Kate Tempest. If you haven’t already heard her then prepare to be amazed and awed! She is a huge talent (already won the Ted Hughes prize and been nominated for a Mercury Award) You can find out more about her HERE. Listen below – she’ll take you by storm.




New On Writers’ Rooms – Sharon Griffiths

‘A room full of words’ …. I’m delighted to have well-known novelist and journalist Sharon Griffiths take us into her writing room  – if you’d like to read her evocative piece about where she writes, and also see for yourself  then click HERE.

Although Sharon declares that she writes ‘in chaos’ it looks like a hugely creative space to me…

Millie and Bird, Tales of Paradise ~ My First Copy



A package arrived in the post yesterday – my first two copies of Millie and Bird, Tales of Paradise. A rush of thoughts and emotions followed as I opened it: how lucky I am, how beautiful the book is ( it smells wonderful too, as all books hot off the presses do) – this is due to the artist Barbara Skingle’s great generosity in allowing us to use her inspiring image for the front cover and to Pete, Kate and Brian Grogan at Iron Press for their beautiful design. I felt tearful, hard to say why: maybe because I wondered if it would ever happen, maybe because somebody believed in the work enough to publish it, or maybe because of all the hard work and the sheer emotion that went into writing the stories – maybe a mixture of all of these.

Then there was the fear, these are not fashionable stories; who will be interested in these lives lived out on the margins? Then the panic- is the writing good enough, does it live up to the book itself, haven’t I written better, newer stories? But I wasn’t about to let that spoil the day – this is my year for not doing that! So I’ve put my fears to one side and  I’m looking forward very much to launching these stories and to having my book here in front of me, on my desk where I can finally pick it up and know it’s real.

If you would like a copy it will be on sale on Amazon 26th Februaryyou can pre-order HERE

Poem for Julia Darling

juliaThis year New Writing North is celebrating the life and work of the wonderful, poet, playwright and novelist extraordinaire, Julia Darling.

To tie in with the tenth anniversary of Julia Darling’s death, Ellen Phethean, Julia’s business partner at Diamond Twig, is looking to publish poems inspired by Julia on her website.’

I read this yesterday in New Writing North’s Newsletter and immediately knew I wanted to write a poem for Julia.

Would I write about the first time I met her at a writing workshop in the Town Hall in Bishop Auckland, or subsequent times when we ate chips in Bar Mondo, smoked rollies in the Queens? Would I write about the time I took her on a tour of HMP Low Newton where I worked and which she thanked me for so generously in her acknowledgements in The Taxi Driver’s Daughter? Or would my poem be about how she was the first person, other than my great friend and mentor Wendy Robertson, to acknowledge me publicy as (in her words) ‘a talented writer,’?

In the end I decided I would write about none of these. Instead I’ve been writing about a snowy night in January when I read with her at Newcastle City Library. She’d had bad news that day from her consultant, very bad and yet she was as ever her warm, generous self. I’d given up smoking but that seemed unimportant in the face of everything else, and when the readings were over we nipped outside and shared a rollie. Wendy and I only just made it home that night. Sadly, Julia didn’t make it but her spirit, her smile, her energy, her inspiration live on.

I am not, first and foremost a poet and I wasn’t inclined to put my early draft up here for all to read but then, when I thought about Julia, it seemed cowardly not to –

At the City Library with Julia

It is snowing in the city when we go in.
You call us over, glass in hand, to sit at your silvery table.
We shrug off our deerskin coats, gather our wine.
You and I are reading. You are famous. I am not.
There are Russians in the crowd.
You show me your nerves, taking them out to air
subduing mine, ‘Be brief, that’s the key,’ you say
then, as if by way of something ordinary, of
something you forgot to say earlier: ‘Today
my consultant told me its spread to my liver.’
We murmur our sympathies, mime inadequacies,
we do not rant or rave or collapse in a public place.
We drink our wine.

Your words are miracles; operations performed by hand
without incision, scions of faith and hope.
You keep it brief. ‘She goes on too long,’ you say of the poet.

After in the doorway snow accumulates at our feet
and even though I’ve given up smoking we share a rollie,
wonder what the Russians make of it. As we say goodbye
you begin to fret about our long journey home.

We leave the city, its pool of yellow light and walled in
shelter, talking of Julia; the motorway is silent, the way ahead
turning to glass and white. The world is shrinking
under the weight of snow how life becomes so small.


I’m still working on this poem and would welcome any feedback – seriously, I want it to be the best it can be.

If you would like to offer your poem about Julia, please send it to Ellen at diamond.twig@virgin.net with a short piece about a memory of how you were inspired by Julia. Poems will be published from April

Brene Brown – Daring Greatly

You may know of Brene Brown*, you may have listened via YouTube to her TED talk on vulnerability and shame. I have to admit she was news to me until very recently. I suspect I’ve come late to this party but come I have and I want to share the party with you, especially those of you who like me suffer from doubt about ourselves and our work, or from the disease of perfectionism, from never feeling ‘good’ enough; who suffer from the masks we wear to hide our vulnerability, our fear and discomfort.
Brene Brown opens up the box of this ‘shame,’ of ‘never enough,’ – never good enough, thin enough, successful enough, smart enough etc etc and what it is to be vulnerable and she does it in an honest life enhancing way. In her book Daring Greatly, How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead, she argues that none of us are immune to the issues around vulnerability and as writers we are particularly vulnerable when we ‘put our art, writing, our photography, our ideas out into the world with no assurance of acceptance or appreciation.’ That’s vulnerability for you. The willingness to ‘show up’ to walk into the arena and give it our best shot. ‘What,’ she asks ‘is worth doing even if I fail?’ Good question.
Being vulnerable is not a weakness. Putting ourselves out there means there’s a far greater risk of feeling hurt and afraid. But fear leads to disconnection and lost opportunities. Avoiding vulnerability and emotional exposure will limit our lives.
‘Daring greatly is not about winning or losing. It’s about courage. In a world where scarcity and shame dominate and feeling afraid has become second nature, vulnerability is subversive.’
This is a book which dares us to engage with life wholeheartedly, to embrace the fear and the joy.
I find a lot in that has resonated with me. I’m reading it for a second time. I think it will change some of my thinking and I hope the way I live too. For one thing I might stop worrying so much and feeling so ashamed about not being thin which has really been a lifelong struggle for me.
*Brene Brown is a respected academic who undertook twelve years of research before writing this book.

New Year Letter to Myself

On New Year’s day I read a great blog post by the poet Anthony Wilson. In this post he writes himself a letter for the coming year – he inspired me to do the same


Dear Avril

The New Year came gently at first, in clouds and a wind from the west. By evening the wind was fierce, demanding to be heard. As you take possession of the house, breathing out in all directions, you feel yourself shift like the wind. Contentment and peace and anticipation of the year ahead turn to restlessness, worry, unwarranted anxiety.

In the coming year you will spend many days like this: a funambulist, feet curled on the wire, troubled by the wind. The trick is to find the space between the highwire and the fall: the days of leather-soled slippers and lace umbrellas where you tread lightly, in balance, the days where the wire is narrow and the wind strong. You will find this space in the act of writing and creating something new.

You have days to look to, to mark on the calendar: the publication of your short story collection, a launch, workshops, a festival, a literary gig, a week of poetry – dates marked with stars, red letter days. Enjoy them, know that you find it all too easy to underplay them, you’ve been schooled for that from long ago. Try not to do that this year. Try to make them truly red letter. Do not apologise.

But remember the unmarked days: mornings of writing, afternoons of reading and being mindful, watching the trees blacken in the late sun, days you long for when you don’t have them, radio days, peaceful, alone days. And the days of sun and friendship, writing in the courtyard in Agde. These are the precious days, the days that live up to unheld expectations. The quiet days.

Take care of your body, keep your back loose, exercise more, stretch, do yoga, otherwise it’s going to get very hard to work at the computer and do the thing you want to do more than any other.

Poetry is calling, find the inspiration. Read. Read. Read. Finish your novella. Be proud of what you do, quietly proud.

Do not concern yourself with acclaim… ‘try to acclaim… a little bit every day, but not too much. Just some…’*

Give yourself permission to be more selfish and more giving. Give yourself permission to ask for what you want.*

‘Write as if you are not afraid.’*


*Sharon Olds
*Amanda Palmer
*Anthony Wilson

Happy New Year and more…

The New Year has blown itself grey- skied through the garden and the house. The wind is warm, the rain on the glass roof sweet-tempered. The house, finally empty, spins still with voices and goodwill. It has been a Happy Christmas. 2015 beckons invitingly. My suprise Christmas present was a PDF of the book cover for my collection of short storie, Millie and Bird and Tales of Paradise, which landed in my Inbox on Dec 30th.  I opened it, it filled the screen and tears welled. To have someone believe in your work enough to publish it is a rare gift. My thanks to Iron Press and the indefatigable Peter Mortimer.

I’ve begun the New Year reading Sharon Olds – Stag’s Leap – words that come to mind: intimate, accessible, brave, honest… and shocking in its generosity.

I like what Sharon Olds has to say about writers and writing, she is refreshingly uncomplicated. Here she is in an interview with Sam Parker following her TS Eliot prize win

‘Here’s the thing – writers are not confident people… We work and we hope and we doubt ourselves. And for women of my age, who grew up in very patriarchal times – even more so than it is now – I think the pleasure is in just being able to be writers as the world changes around us. You don’t wake up in the morning feeling ‘acclaimed’. We try to acclaim ourselves a little bit every day, but not too much. Just some…”

This brings me to  a very special blog post for New Year’s day written by the poet Anthony Wilson. In this post he writes himself a letter for the coming year – he has inspired me to do the same – I will post it here once it’s done, also a preview of the book cover.

Happy 2015  – my first newsletter of 2015 will be out on Mon Jan 5th

The Latest in Writers’ Rooms – Kathleen Jones

For a Christmas treat – take  a peek at biographer, novelist and poet Kathleen Jones’  ‘made to measure,’ writing room. Tucked away at the top of an old  converted mill it’s the perfect writer’s getaway. Kathleen is an acclaimed biographer best known for her life of Kathleen Mansfield. She is also a novelist and an award winning poet. She blogs regularly about life and writing at A Writer’s Life.

You can see her Writer’s Room HERE

Wishing you all a Happy Christmas and a great writing year ahead!