Eight Poems…with Rachel McCrum

Dear Poetry As Fuck,

So, we recorded this Eight Poems That, If You Had To Be Trapped In Some Way For a Prolonged Period of Time With Little Hope Of Rescue previously on my last night in Edinburgh in spring 2017, and it was a grand meandering conversation, the most I remember of which was a very entertaining sideswipe into Jim Carrey being birthed by that fake rhino in Pet Ventura 2, and then the hosts’ cat jumped on your laptop just as we were finishing up, and everything was lost, and I don’t think I’ve seen a man look so disconsolate and disbelieving. And then I had to go and buy some pizzas for my lovely host family so we couldn’t even try again.

Two and a bit years later, I’m sitting at my desk in Montreal looking over the balcony and the ruelle (the back alley) on a Sunday afternoon in late April. It’s cold still, and there is no green on the trees, but there’s sun and crispness. There’s also now my little grey cat, who is leaping in and out the open window, and from whom I am protecting all this carefully. I looked over my original list from 2017, and it was widely ranging and diverse, perhaps too much so – from Seamus Heaney to Kei Millar to Hannah Silva. I hadn’t had the first book out, ranging and unfocussed as a first book might be, cramming all the writing I’d ever done into it. I think I might be tighter and more strategic, even ruthless about what I spend my time reading now. I’m looking for the voices and the language that are feeding the move to the next book (due – maybe next year. Let’s see. It’ll come when it’s ready and thought-out and finished, and no sooner), and the ways to centre myself here, in Canada, very far from home, and still getting used to making one. All the poetry mothers. So.

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Caroline Bird – Road Signs (Watering Can, Carcanet, 2009)

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‘Then you showed your baby blood

and baby said ‘Salty,’

and you said, ‘Don’t drink that’

and baby said ‘Muddy man’

and baby said ‘Bloody leaves’

and baby said ‘The ocean is a green man with salty blood.’

and you recognised your baby’s madness.’

Jonathan [Lamy, mon chum] and I both teach regular workshops over here (Quebec), in different places and languages, and we’ve gotten into a habit of discussing what we’re teaching and sharing resources. We’ve got very different reading behind us, academically speaking: I’m all la-di-da oul Oxford English Lit canon, starting with Beowulf and ending with George Eliot, and then some twentieth-century Scottish and Northern Irish stuff thrown in, and he started in the 1960s, in French/French-Canadian. So it’s fun to share.

He’d started a recent new term with exercises around La terre est bleue comme un orange, from Paul Eluard and the Surrealist tradition, and we were breaking it down into why that was such a good starter for people in workshops to think about poems and metaphors, and making the abstract concrete, and the intangible tangible, and unexpected imagery and juxtaposition, and all that good stuff. I went off to find some Surrealist poetry in English (because a lot of the more-well known stuff is in French and generally, seemingly, not too easy to translate well) and ideally written by a woman, and had this buzz in my head about the structure of the Eluard, and where I’d heard it before. Oh, the magnificent Caroline Bird! Self-confessed living English female Surrealist poet – hurrah!

I’ve heard her perform this poem multiple times (we had a wee tour together in 2017 for our books which was a staggering learning experience for me, watching how she crafts and questions and challenges herself. She is also an excellent drinking-and-wailing-to-songs-in-hotel-rooms-partner) and it’s one of the most joyful, clever, beautiful explorations of learning how to explore the world with poetry and imagery and words and juxtaposition, and also this tender, loving, glorious tribute to her mum, and the guidance and encouragement with which a mother opens the world up to a child (if they do it right). I fall in love with the poem every time I read it. I’ve also been reading it aloud to the workshops, to demonstrate how you can take that one blue Earth orange and craft it into a complete poetic work, and for which Caroline gets absolutely no royalties (I’m sorry about that, pal, and please hit me up if copyright law ever catches up with usage of poems and due payments in workshops), but I very much hope she’s getting a few international book sales. She’s definitely getting some new fans.

Miriam Gamble – The Squirrels Are Dead (2010); Pirate Music (2014); What Planet (forthcoming – 2019), Bloodaxe.

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‘Fuck knows what it’s all about but if you really want to drink Cartojal a beaded bag ought to be purchased for our wits given how everybody here’s like their inner head fell off.’

(Feria de Malaga, Commission for the British Council ‘Crossing Borders’ https://litshowcase.org/content/feria-de-malaga/)

It’s been an unexpected giggle that Derry Girls is very big in English-speaking Quebec. It’s made my job a lot easier in terms of explaining where I’m from. They thought I was Scottish for a while, because of the whole coming over from Edinburgh thing, and also because I owe so much to Scotland for the poetry and the career and all that, but actually, when you get down to it, I’ve always been Northern Irish, first, foremost, and will be to the end of my days. It took going a wee bit further away to get clarity on that, perhaps.

I’ve gone and lent my Miriam Gamble books to someone over here who’s taking a tour of Northern Ireland in the summer, and I can’t put my hand on the poem that I want to, but this’ll work in the interim. Miriam is both a dragon and a terrier, and a friend, and one of the most ferocious, ragingly clever, kind women that I know, and when I miss the Northern Irish way to push words all over the place, and I do, particularly over here, because they tend to hold the English language back into themselves, reserved and cautious and measured, powerful in its own way, but I miss our nonsense, just batting words about for the joy of it, spilling them about because we can, so when I’m feeling restless and achey for it, I can grab one of Mim’s books (Sarah, I need them back) and I lean back into it and let all her fury and glare carry me along. She’s unsentimental and clear-eyed and looks at things very much askew (as she says yourself), and she notices the small wee things, and worries away them, dragging them out with her teeth and squatting down to examine them, head cocked and lips pulled back. Did I mention I love her? The old Northern Irish canon of the big old men (Heaney and Mahon and the like) can budge over now for the women coming through – the unholy trinity of Miriam Gamble, Sinead Morrissey, Leontia Flynn. Buy their books. Miriam’s got a new one coming out very soon.

Annharte – Cuntajunta (indigena awry, New Star Books, 2017)

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Cunt do it alone cunt topped up cuntalina flow up spine cunt drip drop that cunt let go      smooth cunt silk hair leave it to the cuntman is a man obsessed by cuntology cuntrary to     cunteraphobic afraid to say the word listen

Annharte is Anishinabe (Little Saskatchewan First Nation, Manitoba), now based in Winnipeg, and is a poet, activist, cultural critic, author, and performance artist/storyteller. She’s in her 70s now,  describes herself as self-taught, although she did go back to education in the 1970s and studied at the University of Winnipeg. I saw her read at the Atwater Poetry Project in Montreal in September 2018, and I was terrified and delighted in equal measure. She’s a community worker in women’s centres, and she’s been through abuse and trauma, and she’s caustic and funny as hell, drawing on Indigenous storytelling and her own survival. I’m talking about her here in a way that I’m not even wholly comfortable with – away and read her in her own words. She needs no one to explain her but herself.

Sylvia Plath – The Applicant (Ariel, 1962)

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First, are you our sort of a person?’

Speaking of furious. Oh My Plath. Everyone’s Plath. No one’s Plath but her own. I have the Faber & Faber Collected Poems, with inscriptions inside from Sophie Orr and Ann Gilmour, for my 18th birthday in Belfast in 2000. It’s navy blue, battered as all hell, the cover held on with tape, and the insides highlighted with neon yellow, pink, and green – I chose her for one of my Finals extended essays in 2003, so there was a lot of excitable cross-referencing. What a luxury to spend six months with Sylvia. I read her at 17, I read her in my late 20s, and I’m reading her again, now, at 37. I’m seven years older than she was when she killed herself. I visited her grave, tucked away, scratched, full of pens, high on the hillside in Heptonstall when I was touring in 2017, the day after a gig in Hebden Bridge.

The BBC recordings are the best. All that clipped, vicious fury. I look at her now and think, Christ, the determination you had to write those poems, to wrench them out of you and mould them and throw at the world at 30 years old. There is so much to learn from reading and re-reading you. I hope she would have loved how much of an icon she has become. She wanted it, and she deserved it. I look forward to always reading Sylvia.

Wislawa Szymborska – Brueghel’s Two Monkeys (Calling Out To Yeti, 1957)

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‘but when it’s clear I don’t know what to say

he prompts me a gentle

clinking of his chain’

I had this stuck on the kitchen cupboard door of my Drumdryan Street flat in Edinburgh for ages, just above the kettle. The edges would peel off from the steam now and then, but I found myself staring at it most morning, barefoot on the floorboards, and waiting for a cup of tea. I come to Szymborska for calm. There are brutal things described in her poems, and she observes them with dispassionate wit. Which isn’t to say that she’s distant – she’s there, in the poems, quiet and clear-eyed and clever, and never cynical. There’s a reflection on history and mankind’s movements through history that feels very European, although it is rare that she names concrete places, and very much placed in the second half of the twentieth century. She’s part of that tradition, and I suspect helped to voice most of that self-reflection and examination (I like Brodsky for the same reasons, although he goes on a bit more). I reach for her, here in Quebec, this skewed mix of North America and Europe, full of the traditions of immigrants coming in after the Second World War, and I feel connected.

Alice Notley – ‘I Think Fiercely’ (Certain Magical Acts, 2016, Penguin).

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‘If only I could dream from the beginning! I have

love, and I’m afraid to die. I don’t have love,

and I’m not afraid to die. I just want to sit here

forever with thoughts drifting through, trying not to

make my life finite. But I’m beating on a drum. For you.’

I bought this book, my first Alice Notley , in Drawn & Quarterly best bookshop in North America (never mind Montreal) in May 2017. According to a note at the front of the book, I was in there with Rachel Amey, who was over for the Blue Metropolis festival at the time. It was cold in Montreal that day, and I remember us stomping down Boulevard St Laurent, talking about feminism and poetry and Scotland, before heading out to my flat with Jonathan in Hochelaga. Rachel brought me a massive jar of Marmite, which I had requested, and which had caused some bewilderment at customs. I was still trying to negotiate being in Montreal at the time, working on my book and knowing that I was heading back to Ireland and Scotland to tour it, and trying not to look too far beyond that, because I couldn’t, really, not to dwell on what it all meant, or how finite or final it was to be. The cost only became apparent later. Certain Magical Acts lived in my bag for months, between Canada, Scotland and Ireland, and I could only read it in small chunks. If you read Notley, it’s this tumbling, exhausting, exhilarating spun of consciousness and poetry that feels like a dream that you’re running through. The book is highly political (written in and around the 2016 US elections) but so slippery and so galloping that your own thoughts start to careen with it. I love it, and it scares me, and I’ll go back to it again when I’m feeling braver.

(Fun fact: I ended up on a train seat beside Alice Notley on the way back from Versefest in Ottawa in 2018, and I was too tonguestruck to tell her how much I admired her – the book in my bag the whole time – and when I finally stuttered to her how much I loved it, she told me that she had thought I had no idea that she was actually a poet.)

Shannon Webb Campbell – ‘A Hyperactive Text’ (I Am A Body Of Land, 2019, Book*hug)

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‘I am power in the hands of the readers. I am a post romantic lyric poet. I am meaning versus intention. I am post etymology. I am animal vulnerability. I am a collision of colonialism and war.’

Shannon is a mixed-Indigenous (Mi’kmaq) settler poet, writer, and critic, originally from Newfoundland. She looks so much like one of my friends from back in Northern Ireland that I started off by being awkwardly over-familiar with her, but we bonded over Atlantic coasts and adapting to being so far inland. This book is actually a re-issue from the original 2018 edition, which was pulled after a controversy over Indigenous protocols, and who gets to tell which story. Shannon worked with her elder Lee Maracle to re-write and re-issue the book, having to confront what she had previously written, and to work so hard to bring the book back in another form. I can’t speak to the protocols, or what had been written before (not my story), but the book itself – along with Lee Maracle’s introduction – is a powerful, humble (and humbling) exploration of the responsibility of poetry and Shannon’s examination of her own identity (or identities). It’s full of hard-won integrity, coupled with poetry that vibrates like a taut pulled string. Extraordinary power. The politics of colonialism, of Indigenous rights, of the rights to story are all heavily debated at the moment in Canada, in ways that I find fascinating and disturbing in equal measure. It’s a huge learning curve.


Honorary mention – my French isn’t strong enough yet to say that I’m getting everything from French poetry so I’ve a whole stack of books from new pals over here that I’m too scared to open. But I did read Aimee Verrets’ ‘Monstres Marin’ (2019, del Busso) in one sitting and I’m still so excited and moved by it. It’s all full of salt and whales and monsters and bodies and women, so the language wasn’t too far off. But it’s a dark and beautiful work. The French-language poetry in Quebec is one of the reasons I moved: I want to get in and under that play of language and imagism and interiority and seriousness and protest. Give me another few years…

Rachel McCrum was born in 1982 and grew up in Donaghadee, Northern Ireland. She lived in Edinburgh, Scotland from 2010 to 2016, where she previously published two pamphlets with Stewed Rhubarb Press: The Glassblower Dances (2012, winner of the Callum MacDonald Award) and Do Not Alight Here Again (2015, also a solo Fringe show). She was the Broad of cult spoken word cabaret Rally & Broad, the inaugural BBC Scotland Poet-In-Residence, and a recipient of an RLS Fellowship in 2016. She has performed and taught across the UK, Ireland, Greece, South Africa, Haiti and Canada. She currently lives in Montreal, Quebec, where she is Director of Les Cabarets Batards.


Call for Submissions #20 – It’s Tuesday Night!

LD 20 tuesday

We want your words. Your words inspired by the theme ‘It’s Tuesday Night!’.

When we say ‘we want your words’ we want anything that involves you making noises; it’s only limited by what your mind can come up with and a time constraint: a maximum of five minutes in length (a limit, rather than a target). We’re interested in any style of writing, we want to show off the range of spoken word. We are happy to broadcast previously published works.

Whatever you send, the podcast will be set to an ambient soundtrack, so we ask that the recordings are vocals only. Preferred audio formats are mp3 and wav files. Please save your file with your name and poem title.

Recordings can be sent to lies.dreamingpodcast at gmail dot com by the 31st of July 2019 for a podcast at the end of August.

The theme for the podcast is It’s Tuesday Night!

We’re looking forward to your responses!

All submissions will receive a response within 10 days of the deadline passing.

Contributors to the podcast will receive a payment of £5.

Eight Poems…with Marianne MacRae

Eight Poems That, If You Had To Be Trapped In Some Way For a Prolonged Period of Time With Little Hope Of Rescue is a series that demands people imagine some place they could never escape from where they only have eight poems for comfort. We tend to find that each person’s poems bring out the isolation situation within themselves, but also it’s a good excuse to talk about poems we like. Where possible, I’ll link to a copy of the poem or a place where you can buy a hard copy within the UK. However, it’s always worth remembering that your nearest library might be able to get a copy for you.Eight Poems logo

‘A Quiet Poem’ by Frank O’Hara

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Frank O’Hara is a poet I never lose interest in. ‘A Quiet Poem’ (one of the first poems of his I read/fell in love with) is exactly that; a soft decrescendo to a final point of absolute stillness. It is a long, satisfying exhalation. I become the coin, floating to the bottom of the ocean and I don’t even like the sea, which should indicate how relaxed I feel when I read it.  I realise that sentiment sounds a little end-of-life-desire, but I mean it more in a mindful, taking-a-moment-to-be-alone-with-my-sense-of-self sort of way. I mean hey, maybe it is about dying? But I prefer to imagine it as going for a nap on a pleasantly warm beach. So, the perfect accompaniment to my exposed body baking on the sandy ground of this planet that it too close to the sun.

‘Melanchthon’ by Marianne Moore

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Send Ezra Pound to hell and push T.S. Eliot into a boiling sea, so that Marianne Moore can take up her crown as Modernism’s Absolute Hero. She’s dark, she’s funny, she’s inordinately intelligent; her images, her tone, her form are all complex to the point of vexation, which I love, because it means I can read and re-read her work for years and still not necessarily have any idea what she’s talking about.

‘Melanchthon’ is…kind of about an elephant, but maybe also about the poet disguising herself as an elephant so she can be more honest about life. It’s definitely about nature, with some strands of cultural appraisal thrown in for good measure. It’s about animal spirits and human souls, about religion and a questioning of religion (even though Moore was a devout Presbyterian, there’s strong evidence to suggest she supported the theory of evolution). It might also be one of her exacting appraisals of poetry and criticism. We’re invited to question the self in relation to others, to The Other, while at the same time trying to ascertain “what is a self?” …I think? In all honesty guys, the focus shifts on a line-to-line basis and it all gets a bit obscure just like the muddy skin of the elephant, whaaaaat?!

‘The Solex Brothers’ by Luke Kennard

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I’m not sure there’s another poet to have more influence over my work than Luke Kennard. I first read The Solex Brothers back in 2007, when I was but a tender undergraduate and was genuinely astounded that poems were allowed to be this way.

I chose ‘The Solex Brothers’ simply because it was the first poem of his that I read, which means, as well as being brilliant, it’s intrinsically nostalgic. “The Solex Brothers, twice the size of ordinary men” feel like old friends. Worryingly odd friends, yes, but friends that offer a route out of a humdrum life. The world they inhabit is strange, of course, and Kennard shifts between time and space with a vertiginous speed, but within a few stanzas, it feels completely natural to find oneself sitting in the back of a chauffeur-driven Mustang, singing songs about inedible vegetables while “[t]he roadside diners [glimmer] like bookshelves, little glowing bookshelves” (amongst my favourite similes of all time).

‘Morning Birds’ by Tomas Tranströmer

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Move over Ted Hughes’ ‘The Thought Fox’ (TTF), there’s a new (still pretty old) kid (poem about the process of writing poetry) in town (the collected works of Tomas Tranströmer). ‘Morning Birds’ is amongst my fave poems about process. However, like TTF, it goes beyond this more overt theme to suggest that an engagement with nature is vital to human enrichment. But Tranströmer wasn’t responsible for any of his wives’ deaths, so…

I’ve been obsessing lately over the idea of art as a means of immortality and I think this poem touches on that. In it, the magpie comes “[t]hrough a backdoor in the landscape”, sneakily foregrounding itself in the same way the initial impetus for a poem might do. By the end, the poem “throws [the speaker] out of the nest”, which I find endlessly interesting, because it implies that the poem itself is the creator, the mother bird, and the artist is the little naked fledgling who better find its wings quickly or it (they?) will die. There’s no poem without the poet and no poet without the poem. And I’m sure I’m not alone in wishing I could explore this idea ad infinitum in the lonely, burning hot heat of a distant desert planet. (See me after class for a more detailed exploration of this poem, because there’s so much more to say!)

‘Planet of the Apes’ by Hera Lindsay Bird

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In general, I love juicy imagery. Something that leaps off the page and makes me go “oooo yeah!”. ‘Planet of the Apes’ is overflowing with the stuff. In fact, everything I’ve read by Hera Lindsay Bird so far sings with luscious metaphors and fresh descriptions that wish they were citrus fruits, so everyone would immediately be like “ahhh yes, juicy”. There are lines in this poem that makes me really jealous I didn’t write it myself. For example, I would love for my face to be described as a nineteenth century cornfield. So pure, so pure.

‘A Part Song’ by Denise Riley

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Denise Riley’s Say Something Back is an important collection, not only for people who have been bereaved, but for everyone. ‘A Part Song’ is sort of a compact version of the collection as a whole, and the motions of grieving that Riley goes through are startingly raw; there are no hidden messages, this is a very genuine pain, felt deeply by the writer and distilled into the twenty short sections that make up the poem. But as the title suggests, getting to the end of the poem doesn’t mean the grief is over. This is only a brief exposé of a loss that, for the speaker at least, cannot be neatly resolved to a final coda. Whenever I come back to it I find this poem just as exhilarating as the first time I read it. There is a multiplicity of voice, tone and form that do different things for me on different days.

In basic terms, it makes me weep, and if poetry’s job is anything, it’s to move us deeply, as someone or other has said a million times over the years. And yes, when I’m lonely and dying on a desert planet, I do want to read about the fact that we’re all lonely and dying, thankyouverymuch.

‘At the Fishhouses’ by Elizabeth Bishop

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 I’m sure we can all agree Elizabeth Bishop is simply excellent. And just in case I happen to survive on the planet, and find some local, humanoid creatures to mate with (oo-er!) her work would be a vital part of the canon that I would want to pass on to whatever hybrid offspring we might produce.

There were tons of poems I thought about choosing. ‘The Map’ or ‘Crusoe in England’ might be good for someone stranded in unknown terrain. And ‘The Man-Moth’ is one of the cutest, most tragic poems about loneliness which might serve a lonely spacewoman well, particularly if I end up spawning some part-human/part-sand insect babies. But I went with ‘At the Fishhouses’ because it has a little bit of everything I love about poetry. There’s an evocative description of place, (so transformative I feel like I’m having a flashback to this place that I’ve never visited); there’s an almost cartoonish interaction with a seal who seems to know more than he’s letting on, and there’s a subtle suggestion of death throughout that culminates in a transcendental reach towards a deeper understanding of what life is…you know, all the best things.

‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’ by Ocean Vuong

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 So, this is another choice where, really, I would want to bring the entire collection. I think Ocean Vuong is pretty much incomparable to any other poet of the moment. In fact, it’s almost basic that I’ve chosen a poem by him, because of course I would have to bring something by one of the hottest tickets in Poetry Town.

‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’ is by turns shocking, desolate, beautiful, though in the end the residing feeling is one of hope. The language is so precise, so sensitively utilised that the poems drips with implications and unsaid things. It’s a long poem that doesn’t feel long because it morphs from section to section, changing pace to maintain absolute immersion in the poem (yes, I admit it, sometimes I find long poems really boring). Also: “Dusk: a blade of honey between our shadows, draining” – yes! This. Is. A. Juicy. Image. Lads! Take a moment to yourself and unpack it (I’m running out of words so can’t do it here). The poem is full of descriptions like this; the whole collection is, so don’t waste anymore time not reading it.

Marianne MacRae is a poet and academic based in Edinburgh. Her work has been widely published in journals including Magma, Ambit and Acumen. In 2017/18, she was the inaugural poet-in-residence at the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing from The University of Edinburgh. You can find her on Twitter @MarianneMacRae

Lies, Dreaming #18 – The Night Shift at McDonalds

We are delighted to announce the contributors for our eighteenth podcast, which has as its theme “The Night Shift at McDonalds”.

You can subscribe to the podcast using the links on the right.

Here is a rundown of our contributors:

Jenny Lester is an Edinburgh based writer and a frequent performer on the city’s scene. As an ex waitress, frozen yoghurt sculptor, and Christmas elf she has vast customer service enduring experience. She is currently organising Any Woman, Anywhere, an open mic for International Women’s Day at Summerhall on Thursday 7 March.

Tom Fergus Arnott works primarily with lo-fi and analogue productions methods, embracing comedy and a DIY sensibility. His main current interest is urban loneliness and alienation in the age of information technology. He works with spoken-word, sound art, print media and film. Here’s a link to his most recent video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?

Jess Williams used to hide under the duvet when her Mum read her poetry. Now she is a writer and theatre director from Northumberland, inspired by the coastal countryside. Her love for storytelling has taken her through many genres, but poetry started her love for creative writing.

Rebecca Green is a performer and visual artist who lives in Edinburgh.  She writes, performs, paints, makes objects, and messes about with forms in between, showing work in galleries, theatres, comedy clubs and everyday spaces. https://www.instagram.com/rebeccathecrocus/


Our next theme will be ‘A Falling Piano’. Check out this blogpost for further details.

Call for Submissions #19 – A Piano, Falling

We want your words. Your words inspired by the theme ‘A Piano, Falling’.

When we say ‘we want your words’ we want anything that involves you making noises; it’s only limited by what your mind can come up with and a time constraint: a maximum of five minutes in length (a limit, rather than a target). We’re interested in any style of writing, we want to show off the range of spoken word. We are happy to broadcast previously published works.

Whatever you send, the podcast will be set to an ambient soundtrack, so we ask that the recordings are vocals only. Preferred audio formats are mp3 and wav files. Please save your file with your name and poem title.

Recordings can be sent to lies.dreamingpodcast at gmail dot com by the 30th of April 2019 for a podcast at the end of May.

The theme for the podcast is A Piano, Falling.

We’re looking forward to your responses!

All submissions will receive a response within 10 days of the deadline passing.

Contributors to the podcast will receive a payment of £5.

Lies, Dreaming #17 – Tell me something I don’t know

We are delighted to announce the contributors for our seventeenth podcast, which has as its theme “Tell me something I don’t know”.

You can subscribe to the podcast using the links on the right.

Here is a rundown of our contributors:

Becky Downing is a Liverpool-based, Actor, Poet & Playwright. She began writing for Theatre in the Rough in 2012 and has since created work for various festivals & projects with the Company including ‘A Concept of Beauty’ for the Liverpool and the Titanic Fest (2012), ‘The Jewellery box’ for the Lusitania Exhibition (2015) and a short audio play, ‘Haunted Sefton’ in 2016. Since then, Becky has been writing Poetry for her website, toured with Want The Moon Theatre Company this year playing ‘Joss’ in ‘Other People’s Teeth’,  and has just written & Performed her one woman show ‘We’ve Been Bette’ at theatre 503, London.

Kathryn Thomson is a Scottish poet currently living in Glasgow. After a degree in Scottish Literature and Language, she now works part-time as a freelance poet and has worked closely and written for a number of third-sector organisations. She also produces monthly email newsletters that you can sign up to here. Find her on Instagram and her Website.

Ellen Storey is a writer and editor living in Aberdeenshire.  She has been writing since childhood and edited her mother’s memoirs of post-war Germany which were published in 2009. She enjoys taking part in workshops/projects, and wrote for the EU-funded Dovetail partnership in Nottingham which published an anthology in 2014. She also contributed a biographical chapter to Women’s Voices, Women’s Words published by Global Press in 2016.

Michael McGill is an Edinburgh poet who has recently had work published in Far Off Places, Picaroon Poetry, The Haiku Quarterly, Likely Red Press and Eye Flash Poetry Journal.

Twitter: @MMcGill09

Our next theme will be ‘The Nightshift at McDonalds’. Check out this blogpost for further details.

Good Grief #9 – Hannah Raymond-Cox

Hannah Raymond-Cox grew up in Hong Kong and San Francisco, and has bounced around the UK since age sixteen. She studied International Relations and Modern History at St Andrews alongside her career in poetry and her work includes original plays, slam poetry pieces, and bespoke poems. Hannah won the Stanza Slam, was a National Poetry Slam Championships Finalist for Scotland, and performed on the BBC Stage at the Edinburgh Fringe. She has gigged everywhere from the Royal Albert Hall to a tiny dive bar in Hong Kong. She is currently touring Germany as an actor and munching her way round all the Bäckerei available. Her debut book, “Amuse Girl”, comes out from Burning Eye Books next year.


Why, if there was a reason, did you write this poem/these poems?

I wrote the show because I’d been approached after a gig in Edinburgh (Other Voices) and was asked whether I had a full-length spoken word show they could come see. I didn’t, and I felt like… well, why not challenge myself not only to do more long-form work, but share my diasporic story? Writing to time of 3 minutes where you’re essentially doing a persuasive monologue means that nuance and context is harder to achieve, and I wanted to frame my story not as one of moments of fear and loss but one of longterm survivorship.

Why, upon writing this poem/these poems, did you perform them?

I think that there was a sense that for me – it was important to share what abuse and the aftermath of abuse/loss looks like on a practical level, in a way that was performing victimhood but as a part of a larger queer diasporic narrative. For the audience I feel like a lot of us experience grief and loss and loneliness and I wanted to connect with others like me – to say hey, you are seen. Also, it was written to be performed. My background as an actor and spoken word poet rather than a page poet means that to me, some work is explicitly created in the medium for a reason.

How does performing this piece change how you look at what happened to you?

Not really – I feel like a lot of the changing happened during the writing process. It took me the best part of 9 months to write the show, and during the last 4 of those I was working with my director and turning in fortnightly revisions. When you’re editing hardcore like that, the preciousness and connexion to the trauma has to take a backseat in service of a good story for an audience that you can deliver consistently every night.

How do you separate artistic performance from lived personal experience?

I feel like most conscientious poets I know are aware that we perform authenticity, and that means that lived experience gets condensed and presented in a way that makes an impact. My lived experience wouldn’t rhyme, it’d have way more hesitations, deviations, and repetitions, I can’t present an hour of it and go The End – it’s a show. No one piece of work can fully articulate the constant complex changes in how I feel about what I’ve lived.

Do you find yourself affected negatively by performing this piece? If so, how do you look after yourself?

I was terrified the first time I shared it – the sense of ownership was huge, and it took a great deal of trust to hand over my script to someone, and the first time I performed it was also huge. But I now treat it like a job to a certain extent – if I were being triggered or emotionally tired out more than usual in the course of a normal acting job then I’d have had to go back to the editing table and see where I could build in safety measures for myself. For me, poetry is inherently performative, and having years of acting under my belt helps me delineate performance emotion from my own mental state. Writing helps delineate too, like POLARIS’ format of “snapshots” and “scene” literally being said helps me reset my breathing and emotional state between scenes and reminds me and the audience that this is all constructed. I’m not Brecht, but I borrow bits…

Do you practice any aftercare after performing this piece (either for yourself or audiences)? (E.g., talking to audience members who are upset, taking some time out after your performance to ground yourself, ensuring you perform in places where you feel safe etc.)

Personally, I go for a pint with friends who enjoyed the piece. I warm down the same way after my spoken word show as my traditional theatre work. If I weren’t able to perform the piece without touching the unsafe parts, then I wouldn’t perform it. I feel like part of my job as an artist is to be able to reproduce the same experience every show for an audience… The great thing about the conventions of theatre and spoken word theatre means that the safe space notion is a compact made as soon as an audience enters a space with clear performer space vs audience seating. I think it does a disservice to say that as artists we need to practice aftercare for an audience – that’s not a responsibility of the performer to police or preempt reactions. Triggers and grief are so personal that what would you warn for? Frequently, trigger warnings beyond the vaguer “mature themes” remove nuance and subtlety from a piece, I’ve found. I’d rather challenge an audience that let them self-select out with my own interpretation of concerning parts of the show…

Do you do any content warnings for this piece? Why?

I do but I keep them generic! Considering the show sits in the realm of spoken word theatre, warnings are on all marketing materials and are necessarily programmed in to the theatres’ booking systems. It’s an important part of marketing a show – to know your audience and your demographic targets. I also definitely don’t want any kiddos walking into a show created for a more mature audience. POLARIS’ content warnings are: 15+, strong language, and mental health themes. Any more than that and I feel like we’re stepping into the realm of spoiler territory and nuance removal, and I feel like I’ve given enough information to the audience in other material. That material includes biography, reviews, the short and long copy for flyers and websites, the visual design of the poster itself, and more.

Does the artist owe any kind of protection or safeguarding to their audience?

In a vacuum/ideal world, the performer has a duty to one thing and one thing only: making the best piece of art they can, which says something, and communicating that something to an audience in a reproducible and safe manner for themselves. They are not there to warn the audience, make the audience feel comfortable, or look after the audience’s reactions to their work (unless directly funded to produce media that does so).  We can’t cotton-wool art because it’s an important medium for raising awareness, for reflecting life back at us, and for representation. Other things too, but they’re less pertinent to the conversation and a medium associated with telling a “truth” to a “power”. Triggers can come from many things, not just things that can be classed as art – we as a society don’t expect them elsewhere, what makes spoken word different?

I think that the warnings in front of a typical show (eg. strobe lights, mature themes) work well enough now. We have content warning systems for some arts (cinema and video games really stand out for the level of detail available pre-purchase) but almost nothing for others, particularly books and theatre. For cinema and videogames, solitary and personal media, that makes sense to provide a measure of information to consumers who may have the ability to pause the medium or want to allow kids to watch material beyond the suggested age rating. Theatre and books, which performance poetry most closely resemble, do not warn beyond blurbs on covers or through supplementary materials used primarily for marketing. They allow for exploration, challenging those who engage with the work in a different way.

Part of the problem with asking the performer and writer to provide content warnings and/or aftercare for the audience is that the performer/writer is usually a) too close to the work (in poetry, the content’s usually personal in nature), b) busy pre-show and post-show working on performance itself and may not want to break character of “performing”, c) drained/busy at the end of performing, and d) the only person doing everything associated with that performance! A small example: halfway through my month-long run of POLARIS at Edfringe 2017, a man who’d watched me perform cornered me immediately after and asked me to talk through his reactions to the show with him, then and there. I was in the middle of set take-down, turning around the space, was tired and mildly out of breath, was emotionally resetting from the show, and was absolutely not in the right space for the conversation he wanted to have. I’m not a psychiatrist, and I don’t know about any trauma other than my own. I was one person, doing the work of 5, and in that moment, I wished desperately for another person to manage audiences – with funding, of course, that a spoken word solo show doesn’t have.

Additionally, you don’t approach an actor at a traditional theatre stage door and expect a verbal warm-down, nor do you corner a writer of a book you like and ask they help you with the themes/your reaction to their work. Not to go all “Death of the Author” on this, but like – people have approached me post-show with a myriad of different interpretations on “emotionally fraught” sections. They ranged from reasonable (depression) to out of the blue to me (eating disorders) – even with my imagination on full blast I could not have predicted their personal reactions to the work. If I listed every element of the show I could think of, I still would have missed a content warning that occurred to someone somewhere. The nature of the piece is that – as adults seeing a show on queer themes and mental health, the obligation is on the person who’s chosen to consume that media to decide whether it’s appropriate or healthy for them.

If the piece has funding beyond the usual spoken word operation, in which the poet is performer, marketer, director, producer, and front of house, then there are more options. It could be good to have content warnings but in a way that isn’t visible to people unless they want to see them (so a visible warning saying ‘content that may be disturbing, ask a member of staff, or similar). That would keep both camps (the ‘I need to knows’ vs ‘I don’t want any spoilers’) happy, I reckon. Box office/FOH would be provided with a list, which the performer/producer draws up prior to the tour as a part of the tour pack. There could also be further supplementary materials, like a website for content warnings. A bigger budget, like for Trainspotting: Live! enables you to do fun things like have scratch cards with content warnings that you physically have to work for to reveal… Or you could try and set up a nationwide age rating scheme like for video games and films, but that requires maintenance and a solid review board, neither of which the spoken word scene seems likely to be able to do.

In conclusion, I think that if you engage in art then you’re bringing yourself and your experiences and your worldview to it: the artist can’t control if those things include triggers beyond a typical age rating and “mature themes”. So if, for example, extensive talk of food triggers you then do your due diligence pre-show and at worst, don’t come – it’s in the synopsis of POLARIS, on flyers, on the website, and more marketing media. If you’re triggered during the show then that genuinely sucks but as far as I’m aware, it’s unfortunately part of having dealt with trauma. As for post-show, well, the BBC provides links to Samaritans and other organisations at the end of their programmes. I’d rather put the onus on the audience to find ways of processing art that work for them, and encourage them to take responsibility for their reactions.

Do you believe writing about areas such as grief, loss or trauma is a form of healthy catharsis or memorialisation?

I’m not qualified to answer this question, like, at all. I’m not a therapist working directly with the person who’s going through it. So…it depends on the individual. Writing can be healthy! Or it can lead to fixation.

What kind of warnings signs would you point out to someone new to poetry or performance who was performing about their traumas?

I suppose I’d ask the person to ask themselves why they’re doing it, if they’ve got another safe place to process trauma, and to gently caution them from using poetry as a form of therapy. If you find performing the poems trigger you or leave you mentally unsafe, don’t do it. Work on editing, work on the craft, and by understanding how best to say what you want to say, you can create distance and reproducibility for performing poetry.