Sunday, 26 March 2017

For Derek Walcott, from Chicago by Dipika Mukherjee

On June 6, 2013, the Poetry Foundation in Chicago hosted the Chicago segment of the Poetry Society of America's 2013 national series, Yet Do I Marvel: Black Iconic Poets of the Twentieth Century. I spoke about Derek Walcott's poetry influencing my own creativity.

I chose to speak about Derek Walcott, for Chicago is as much home to me as is Kuala Lumpur and New Delhi, so I chose Walcott, another nomad poet, who writes about exile and politics and a post-colonial identity in a voice resonant with many languages. He claims the brilliance of a monsoon sky while in the bonechilling winds of an American winter. Although Walcott is of a generation earlier than mine his concerns remain relevant to the generation that comes after me. The world still remains divided by wars, endangered by racial violence and religious distrust...and still, driven by greed.

There were years when I could not write creatively at all...except for poetry. In my twenties, as a young mother of two little boys, while straining to complete a PhD in an alien city in Texas, I read Walcott's poetry and wrote my own. I am aware of the charges of sexual harassment plaguing Walcott's career and they make me very uncomfortable as a woman and a poet. But it is also true that he influenced my early writing in a way that is undeniable.

Walcott’s sensibility, as he speaks of the Caribbean, Africa, Europe and America with equal familiarity, negotiating the difficult and often dangerously fraught spaces in between, spoke to me. In A Far Cry From Africa he wrestles with writing in the colonial language:

Again brutish necessity wipes its hands
Upon the napkin of a dirty cause, again

A waste of our compassion, as with Spain,

The gorilla wrestles with the superman.
I who am poisoned with the blood of both,
Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?
I who have cursed
The drunken officer of British rule, how choose
Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?
Betray them both, or give back what they give?
How can I face such slaughter and be cool?
How can I turn from Africa and live?
Walcott’s poems sing, even when they are full of pain. As a child, I was brought up on Bengali poetry written by another Nobel Laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, whose poems are literally sung in the homes of West Bengal and of Bangladesh; even the Bengali diaspora sings this poetry. I grew up with an appreciation of the musicality of poetry, but from poets like Walcott and Tagore, I learned how to form words to be the change in this world, to create beauty even when there is great despair. Years later, at an APWT literary festival in Thailand, I would heard Kim Jong Il’s former court-poet read a poem about a woman selling her daughter in a marketplace (the child is bought by a soldier), and it moved the jaded international audience in a way news reports rarely do. At a literary festival in Myanmar, fiery poet-monks in red spoke about the value of poetry in challenging notions of nationalism.

It is impossible to talk of Walcott without Omeros. For six years I worked in Leiden, an ancient cobblestoned city of poetry, the birthplace of Rembrandt. Poems in different languages are inscribed on street corners, and on the walls of the KITLV library I would come face to face with these lines from Omeros every single day:

In this, there is the heart of an exile, the enchantment of a journey, the simple joys of land and sea over the trappings of entrenched power. My first poetry book is titled “The Palimpsest of Exile”.

In my own nomadic journey, I have found Chicago In Walcott’s, Midsummer Poems:

Chicago’s avenues, as white as Poland.
A blizzard of heavenly coke hushes the ghettos.
The scratched sky flickers like a TV set.

New Delhi’s summer-to-monsoon season is in these words from The Prodigal:

... Things burn for days . . .
then the rain begins to come in paragraphs
and hazes this page, hazes the grey of islets,
the grey of eyes, the rainstorm’s wild-haired beauty

Now that Walcott is gone, I think of White Egrets, a remarkable book written when he was 80. The last poem in White Egrets is Untitled, as death tends to be, reducing us all to a memory to be slowly erased. But Walcott’s words sing of the resurgent creative power of the word, the sheer magic of creating a vision on white paper with only black lines and creating a “self-naming” universe as real as the one we live in, with clouds and mountains and villages:


...and the whole self-naming island, its ochre verges,
its shadow-plunged valleys and a coiled road
threading the fishing villages, the white, silent surges
of combers along the coast, where a line of gulls has arrowed
into the widening harbour of a town with no noise,
its streets growing closer like a print you can now read,
two cruise ships, schooners, a tug, ancestral canoes,
as a cloud slowly covers the page and it goes
white again and the book comes to a close.

I end here, on this resounding tribute to the immortality of the word, of poetry. There can be no death here, no silence.

Dipika Mukherjee’s second novel, Shambala Junction, will be released in the US in April 2017; it won the Virginia Prize for Fiction (Aurora Metro, 2016). Her debut novel, was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize, republished as Ode to Broken Things (Repeater, 2016), and is available in bookstores now. It is being released as an Audible book on March 28, 2017. 

Saturday, 25 March 2017

The Pain of Titles by Susan Price

It's still sharper than my sight without my specs
Over the past year I've been trying - with a satisfying amount of success - to make my garden more attractive to wildlife. By which I mean birds, frogs, newts, that sort of wild life and not certain friends. (Apologies for the photo's poor quality - new camera that I've not got the hang of yet.) 
     Chatting recently to my agent about the possibility of selling a non-fiction book, I happened to mention this. My agent was interested. A non-fiction book for children on the how and why of 'creating a wild-life garden.' She could get behind a book like that.
     Ah, but what to call it? It's one of the banes of a writer's existence that books and articles have to have titles.
       I started the book with the working title 'Why You Should Make a Wildlife Garden.' But this very blog's own Karen Bush strongly objected to this on the grounds that it sounded so boringly educational and worthy that it would be avoided by all. She suggested, 'Go Wild in Your Garden,' which I'll admit is a whole lot better and less dull than mine but I'm still not totally convinced it's right.

     Aren't titles a pain?

Christopher Uptake

     I've never found them easy and most of my titles have been argued over for ages or invented by other people. I wish I didn't have to think of titles. I used to like the way the TV series, Friends titled their episodes: 'The One About - ' or 'The One Where - '  I wish I could publish my books as, for instance, 'The One That's Sort of Based A Bit on Christopher Marlowe but Not Really.' Publishers never seem to go for that kind of title though.

I remember having a terrible struggle to come up with the title 'The Sterkarm Handshake.' The German translation is called 'The Time Tunnel' and that was one of the many, many titles I came up with. I remember having pages of them.
     In the story one character tells another that the Sterkarms have more left-handers among them than most families and because they are notorious for double-dealing and treachery there is a local proverb, 'Never shake hands with a Sterkarm.' It's said that they will smile and shake hands on a deal with their right hand, but draw their dagger with their left and stab you.
     The Sterkarm family badge shows a hand holding a dagger. Their enemies say the hand shown is a left hand and the badge exemplifies the Sterkarms' untrustworthiness. Their enemies call the badge, 'the Sterkarm handshake.'
The Sterkarm Handshake by Susan Price
     I jotted down 'Sterkarm Handshake' as one possible title and as I battled with rewrites and edits, this phrase began to seem, to me, to be the ideal title. One of the main themes of the book, after all, was treachery and double-dealing of one kind and another, by one party or another, and the phrase
summed that up. I also liked the rhythm and thought it was odd enough to create a curiosity in the reader.
     So, when I submitted the final draft, it was with the title, The Sterkarm Handshake.
     And the publishers hated it. Back and forth went the emails. It was too obscure. It wasn't a 'selling title.'
     I sent them my long, long list of possible titles and said: Choose one you do like.
     And then, suddenly, collapse of stout party. The publishers got back to me saying that after reading my exhaustive list of titles and talking among themselves, they'd come to the conclusion that The Sterkarm Handshake couldn't be bettered. It might be awful, but still couldn't be bettered. So that's the title that stuck.

I called the second book in the series, A Sterkarm Kiss. Without giving away too much of the plot, one reviewer remarked that 'a Sterkarm kiss is every bit as anti-social as a Sterkarm handshake.' They are the Sterkarm versions of a handshake and a kiss, that's the idea.
     This time the publishers had no problem with the title, but I have never heard the last of it from my partner. He has never written a book but this in no way discourages him from telling me how to write them. The title 'A Sterkarm Kiss,' would lose me readers, he said. Any mention of kisses, apparently, is just too girly to be stomached, and the title would cause every single potential reader of the male persuasion to run away in horror without looking back.
A Sterkarm Kiss by Susan Price
     Despite the fact that Sterkarm Kiss has sold pretty well over the years, and presumably not only to soppy girlies, he has not altered his postion on the title one iota and restates it every time any mention of the book comes up.  (Just in case there are such men as he describes in existence let me repeat: a Sterkarm handshake is a stab in the belly. In similar vein, A Sterkarm kiss has nothing to do with snogging. It's a little like a 'Gorbals' kiss': a head butt in the face.)

But in my partner's favour, he did give me the title for the third book in the series.
     It took me a long, long time to write and choosing a title was the usual hard graft. It was going to be 'Sterkarm something,' in keeping with the other books, but Sterkarm what?
     For a long time, it was 'Sterkarm 3.' Then a reader asked, since the first two books had moved from a handshake to a kiss, was the third book going to be called 'A Sterkarm Shag'? (For non-UK readers, a 'shag' is not only a seabird related to the cormorant but British slang for 'sexual intercourse,' as the dictionary puts it.) This amused me and for another long time, my working title was 'Sterkarm Shag.'
A Sterkarm Tryst by Susan Price
     But there came the time when I had to submit the book and come up with a serious title. (Although undoubtedly a 'selling title, at least in the UK, I didn't think the publishers would accept 'A Sterkarm Shag.')
     So I called it 'A Sterkarm Embrace.' In fact, the first cover roughs have this as the title. But I was never happy with it. The rhythm was wrong: the ending of the phrase is weak.
     Then my partner suggested 'A Sterkarm Tryst.' As I turned this over in my mind, it seemed better and better. Its rhythm was better than 'embrace.' Then, 'tryst' has romantic associations and there is a romantic thread in the book. 'Tryst' has other, unromantic meanings - it was, originally, an appointed meeting place for members of a hunt. It also became the name for the great meetings of cattle-drovers and dealers in the north, and the Sterkarms were cattle-farmers as well as reivers. It's also capable of taking another meaning: a Sterkarm tryst is an appointed meeting place that only one side knows about - an ambush.
     The publishers, Open Road, were agreeable, and so the third book was published as A Sterkarm Tryst.
     "But you should get them to change the title of the second one," my indefatigable partner says. "'Kiss.' That's no good. You should change it." Ten years or more since it was first published and I have never once agreed with him and yet he will not give it a rest. Titles are a pain.

     I once published a book for children of 8-10 about a bogle or house-spirit. I called it Hairy Bill, after a genuinely folkloric bogle whose Gaelic name translated as 'Hairy.' My partner was very happy with this title.  It struck him, for some reason, as very perfection in a title.
     The book also featured, besides the bogle, a motorcycle riding witch called Olly Spellmaker and I later wrote a couple of other books about her, called Olly Spellmaker and the Sulky Smudge and Olly Spellmaker: Elf Alert!
    My publishers decided to package the books as a trilogy and wanted to retitle the first book to make it fit better with the other titles. So they retitled it Olly Spellmaker and the Hairy Horror. My partner has never forgiven this sacrilege, or forgotten. If ever anything reminds him of these books, I get, "You should never have let them change that title. It was better before they changed it. That was the perfect title."
     A pain, I tell you. In all kinds of ways, titles are a pain.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Roads less taken, Jo Carroll

I'm home from Malawi, and have begun the process of teasing stories out of the scribbles in my notebooks. For there are stories - of generous, welcoming people who spend three rainy months of the year working their socks off to grow food, and the rest of the time eking out whatever they have grown. There are stories of people starting schools under trees. There are stories of people trying to provide health care with no running water. There are stories off illegal logging and people trying to plant new trees. There are stories of aid agencies, with their baseline studies and conferences. There are stories of lions and hippos and fish eagles.

So you can see why I might be struggling to shape this into some sort of coherence that can hold together in a narrative. Bear with me, I'll get there.

Meanwhile, I think these three pictures illustrate something of my dilemmas.

This is the M1, previously known as the Great North Road. It is the main road north from Lilongwe, the capital. It's much busier further south. Well, if a gaggle of bicycles and a couple of minibuses can be called busy. But who wouldn't want to drive up here to see what you might find?

Or walk along this wooden walkway to see what you might by hiding? But there's a lake nearby, so best keep your eyes open for snakes and crocodiles.

And this path? Has this been made by people? Or animals? It's surely tempting to stroll down here,  binoculars in hand, to look for bulbuls and louries. But be careful: there are jaguars and hyenas here.

Every path has its excitements and its pitfalls. A bit like my stories.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

No Laughing Matter by Lev Butts

I generally try to stay out of politics on this blog as much as possible. I do enough ranting and raving on my private Facebook page that, to be fair, if the current administration was actually enforcing a pogrom on political dissidents, I'd already be calling dibs on the top bunk of a FEMA camp/artist "colony."

To be fair, the medical care there is top notch, I hear.
We even get first dibs on experimental treatments.
However, after last week's release of Trump's budget proposal, especially it's elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, I feel like I need to speak up.

It's not even that I am surprised a conservative president wants to cut resources for these two programs, as far as I can tell, every conservative president since the programs were enacted fifty years ago has wanted to restrict their funding out of some kind of belief that supporting the arts does not add much to the country's benefit. I would point out, however, that the word "much" still allows some benefit, possibly why even the staunchest fiscal conservative has not gone quite so far as to completely eliminate the programs. However, the assumption of the current administration is that these programs have no value whatsoever, one supporter, Brian Darling, a former aide to Senator Rand Paul, has gone so far call them "waste." Others, such as Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, have said that arts endowments "sound great" but aren't "helping anybody."

Pictured: four types of waste, apparently.
And that is where I draw the line. Now I could write an entire blog equating this desire to eliminate our country's two most important cultural endowments with the long history of censorship, but honestly, that has been done to death, and more importantly, when you start calling folks you don't agree with fascists and dictators, it becomes hard to make others see real fascists and dictators when they arise. Besides when we consider things like the NEA Four and Piss Christ, it's hard not to argue that sometimes we artists bring it on ourselves.

Here's the NEA Four because I'm not giving you a picture of Piss Christ
(you'll have to Google that one).
What I do want to point out, though, are a couple of ways that these programs do help lots of people, beyond simply giving artists money to create work of debatable value.

Strengthening Communities

The NEA and the NEH offer grants to local arts projects all over the country. I'm not talking about just big cities like New York and Los Angeles, but little podunk towns like Newnan, GA, where the local amateur theater company uses grant money to help fund acting summer camps for local children, pay some of the production costs for shows. These programs are important to these smaller communities because they allow people who cannot afford to go to a Broadway show, or even a show in their own nearby metropolises, to experience live theater, a tradition that is literally as old as civilization itself.

Museums are also funded by grants from these endowments. Again, losing funding to the MOMA in New York may not spell the end of Manhattan arts. There are plenty of rich donors lining up to help cover the operating costs of big city museums. However, in small towns, many learning museums, that is museums with hands-on activities designed as specific educational experiences for children, would almost certainly go under.

Many summer and after school programs designed to bring arts, theater, and literature, to schoolchildren will be lost.

Sure defunding arts programs doesn't mean that the arts will disappear, but it does mean that many lower income folks, especially children, will lose what little access to cultural literacy they have. The arts will be something for rich people only.

Helping Veterans

The NEH specifically funds projects that help raise awareness of veterans issues and help veterans cope with the stresses of civilian life.  Their Standing Together initiative seeks "to promote understanding of the military experience and to support returning veterans" by awarding grants to projects that "explore war and its aftermath, promote discussion of the experience of military service, and support returning veterans and their families."

In addition to funding documentaries that explore war and its aftermath, such as Ken Burns' The Civil War, this initiative funds more hands-on activities for veterans such as the Talking Service Project  and YouStories which use literature and drama to help returning veterans, their families, and their communities deal with the problems associated with returning home from a war zone.

They also fund The Warrior Scholar Project, which helps veterans transition from soldiers to college students by developing "the analytical reading, writing, and discussion skills critical to academic success while also learning about challenges to expect on campus." The Literature and Medicine program is designed to help Veterans Affairs staff better understand the needs of their charges. The Military History Workshop helps develop digital humanities in the field of military history.

I frankly find it ironic that the proposed budget seeks to expand our military (which is already funded as much as the combined military funding of next eight industrial nations), while effectively ending these programs designed specifically to help our returning military personnel.

All of these programs that help communities, children and veterans will be severely crippled if not outright killed if the NEA and the NEH are destroyed. Fortunately, all hope is not lost. The new budget is simply a proposal. Congress has to approve or replace it, so at first glance this seems an empty hope: Both houses of Congress are controlled by the conservative party, which has always spearheaded the move to defund the arts. However, there are some conservative lawmakers who are apparently ready to fight these cuts. Let's hope they can recruit enough of their colleagues to at least throw the arts a pittance (starving artists are still better than dead ones, I guess).

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

On being a CLANGER, Ali Bacon tries out a new method of work-life balance

Not too long after my last grumble about combining writing and staying sane,  I came across a newspaper  article which I thought provided a useful model for day-to-day living, one that sounded sensible, achievable, and isn’t attached to one particular philosophy (or perish the thought, product).

The main tenets of this are: Connect, Learn, be Active, take Notice, Give back – with the handy acronym of CLANG. Even better, if you add Eat Well, Relax and Sleep it becomes CLANGERS. What’s not to like about that?
I’ve since found the same ideas on a number of NHS websites so it looks like a well-known combination. But how easy is it to put into practice? On a recent Friday (which for me starts with an exercise class so A is taken care of) I decided to see how many I could manage.  

It's good to talk - face to face
C is for Connect with people.
Well you could say that connection online is all to easy and although it can prevent loneliness it can have other bad effects. And so after my Friday morning Zumba Gold, rather than take to Facebook, I invited a few of the regulars to join me for coffee in the on-site cafe. We learned each others names and some of our interests. Nice! Although some weeks we are all too busy (hmm, retired people, really?) it is becoming something of a regular thing. A definite success.

L is for Learn
I spend a lot of time doing historical research which I really enjoy, but in a sense that’s routine learning. That day I went home and set up a Mailchimp account, which I’ve been meaning to do for ages, and got started on learning how to use it. I have to say I fell at an early hurdle but I did achieve a brief moment of fulfilment at tackling something new (to be honest the kind of thing I used to get paid for, but it was still a novelty!) and I felt better for it.

A is for be Active was covered at Zumba and since I also do golf, dancing, and pilates regularly, I feel I am covered.

Look up, you never know what you might see!
T is for Take Notice – but there are some mornings, afternoons or whole days when I feel desk-bound. That day we had a burst of spring sun and so I went out to see what was growing in the garden. There were weeds aplenty, but  I always feel better for even 5 minutes spent with my plants, or if the sun is out sitting with a cup of coffee and taking in the view of next door’s greenery.

G is for Give back
The previous week, I’d noticed a letter in the local paper from a charity asking for host families for children from the area around Chernobyl, many of whom are still crippled, economically and physically, by the past. 
I had done nothing about it but I hadn’t thrown the paper away. Instead of thinking what a nice thing that would be to do, I rang up. Gulp!
Doing a good turn for a neighbour might have been easier, but think of all that Learning!

Something else to learn
Eat, Relax, Sleep well
Even the last three of my clangers needed thinking about. I have become a very lazy cook but I got my act together and made a chicken pie from scratch. Sadly the pastry got a bit soggy (but I quite like soggy pastry). Then, since Friday night is Mr B’s night out, I put my feet up in front of Only Connect and decided my work was done.

My verdict on being a CLANGER? All in all a pretty good day. 

Only one problem of course – no time at all left for writing!

Ali Bacon writes contemporary and historical fiction. 

You can learn more about her here.

And her books are on Amazon

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Wonders of the World - Katherine Roberts

When they wanted to impress in ancient times, people built pyramids, or planted fantastic gardens that hung from the sky. Later explorers made notes of the best places for their countrymen to visit and, well, wonder at. The Greeks ended up with a list of seven, which we now know as the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and tourism was born.

You can visit all these sites today, but you'll either find ruins or - in some cases - nothing at all. So when I needed covers for the ebooks of my Seven Fabulous Wonders series based on the original Greek list, I painted the ancient Wonders as I imagine they might have looked in their full glory.

The Great Pyramid of Giza - the first pyramid to be built at Giza in Egypt, and the biggest.

Great Pyramid at Giza, showing the second pyramid being built.

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, or maybe the Walls of Babylon - the list makers could not agree, so they settled for hanging the gardens from the walls in most of the pictures... possibly an ancient version of a green wall?

Walls of Babylon, plus some trailing plants and a dragon.

The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus - not as big as the pyramids, but a bit closer to home.
Temple of Artemis with resident gryphon.

The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus - ditto, and for a tomb it was a new concept decorated by a lot of impressive statues. The name had a certain ring to it, too, meaning that rich enough people who died after old King Maussollos wanted mausoleums, too.

King Maussollos enjoying his Mausoleum.

The Statue of Zeus at Olympia - sadly for Zeus, nobody worships him as king of the gods any more. But we do, at least, remember the Olympic Games.

Goddess Nike, standing in the palm of Zeus Olympia ready to receive the sacred flame.

The Colossus of Rhodes - you had to be quick to see this one, since it stood for just 56 years before being flattened by an earthquake. But, as with Zeus, how many people worship Helios the sun god these days, anyway?

Colossus of Rhodes - or part of it, after the earthquake.

The Pharos of Alexandria - rather impressive for a lighthouse, but it's light was the real wonder, kept burning night and day to guide ships safely into Alexandria's harbour.
Chariot racing at Alexandria, with the Pharos light in the background.

You might have noticed the odd mythical creature in the above paintings. That's because my Seven Fabulous Wonders series (originally published by HarperCollins between 2001 and 2007) contained a hefty dose of gods and monsters to bring these stories alive for young readers. To see more about these books and the original covers at Goodreads - click here.

Of course, we now realize the world is rather bigger than the Mediterranean countries, so over the years people have compiled newer lists of Wonders that follow the same pattern - big, cutting-edge architecture, preferably something amazing that will draw in the tourists... let's not forget why the Ancient Greeks started these lists in the first place! According to wikipedia, the latest list of Modern Wonders, compiled by public vote between 2000 to 2007, is:

The Great Wall of China - ancient enough to have been around when the Greeks were compiling their lists, only they never got as far as China.

Great Wall of China by Severin.stalder

Petra, Jordan - the famous rose city in the desert, with its impressive gateway set into the rock.

Petra by Berthold Werner

The Colosseum of Rome
- the Romans were into building in a big way, especially if it involved gladiatorial games, though in hindsight their roads were probably a more useful contribution to society.

Colosseum by Diliff

Chichen Itza, Mexico
- another kind of pyramid, but much later than the ones at Giza. This one has steps so you can climb it to make gory sacrifices at the top.

Chichen Itza
by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen -

Machu Picchu in Peru - involves a climb of a different sort, which my dad decided to do when he turned 80 (he survived!).

Machu Picchu
by Pedro Szekely -

Taj Mahal, India - one of the most beautiful buildings on the 21st century list, which, like the Mausoleum, was built to house a tomb.

 Taj Mahal by Dhirad

Statue of Christ the Redeemer, Brazil - more appropriate in this century than Zeus or Helios.

Christ the Redeemer by Chensiyuan

And, given honorary status on this modern list...

The Great Pyramid of Giza - yes, the same one the Egyptians built more than 4,500 years ago, though these days without its dazzling limestone render and gold crown and surrounded by copycats.

Pyramids at Giza by Ricardo Liberato

Which brings us full circle and feels rather like republishing old books that have gone out of print - which is, of course, the whole point of this 'wonderful' history lesson.

If you missed them the first time around, or need a new copy for a gift, you can now order a hot-off-the-press brand new paperback copy of Book 1 The Great Pyramid Robbery with cover artwork by me as above... which should at least make these new editions highly collectible after my death.


The other six matching print-on-demand paperbacks are on their way, and all seven titles are also available as ebooks. You can find more details and all the links on the Seven Fabulous Wonders page of my website.

Interestingly, the closest the UK came to having a Wonder on the modern list was Stonehenge - one of the 21st century finalists, and also one of the most ancient of the nominated sites. I wonder what the Greeks would have thought of it, if they had made it to our island a few thousand years earlier? Maybe my Seven Fabulous Wonders series would have included a book called The Stonehenge Sacrifice? Hmm, now that's given me an idea...

Katherine Roberts writes fantasy and historical fiction with a focus on legend/myth for young readers, and historical fiction with a touch of romance for older readers under the name Katherine A Roberts.

Find out more at

Picture credits:
Seven Wonders of the Ancient World paintings copyright (c) Katherine Roberts.
Photos of the modern wonders CC (Creative Commons) individual photographers as above,

Monday, 20 March 2017

In memoriam and in gratitude by Sandra Horn

The announcement of the death of poet Derek Walcott reminded me how much I love and have been influenced by his amazing epic poem Omeros.  The influence is of a particular kind; when I was writing picture book texts my brain would get scrambled if I was reading certain texts at the same time, and I couldn’t then get the rhythms right. I had a day job then, which involved reading a lot of academic stuff. Fine for its purpose, but too lumpy and unrhythmic (I hope that’s a word) for me with my other hat on. After a day of scientific papers I couldn’t free my head up from the downbeat factual style and write poetically. It was like having an earworm. I needed to read something else to re-set my brain and fire my imagination again, and Omeros did that to perfection. 

Omeros is set on Walcott’s home island of St Lucia. In its seven books, Walcott interweaves modern St Lucian versions of characters from Homer’s Iliad with autobiographical material and the history of the island, its long African-rooted past and more recent colonial epoch. It is rich in metaphor.  Some of the stories have a dream-like quality. The pain of exile runs through it. Perhaps above all it is a love-song to St Lucia and its people.   
It isn’t the content, the words, so much as the music they make that settled my head back into its right mode for writing. There are twelve syllables to a line, but they don’t follow a metrical construction, and the rhyming scheme in the three-line stanzas is irregular. These traits give the writing a great sense of freedom; it is like speech and almost like singing. 

Consider these elegiac fragments:
‘Life is so fragile. It trembles like the aspens.
All its shadows are seasonal, including pain.’
‘It was a cape that I knew, tree-bent and breezy,
no wanderer could have chosen a better grave.

If this was where it ended, the end was easy –
to give back the borrowed breath the joy that it gave,
with the sea exulting, the wind so wild with love.’

I marked them, and several other favourite lines, with torn-up scraps of paper twenty years or so ago. They still move and delight me. I realised when I heard the news of Walcott’s death that I hadn’t looked at the book for a long while, so this morning I have treated myself to dipping through the pages (over 300 in my edition) and reliving the joy I have always found in them. I hope he rests in peace, knowing that his life’s work was most brilliantly well done.