joolz sparkes

writing, reading, being

Writing retreat? There’s no place like home

The M25. On the day schools have just broken up for Summer hols. With the hangover fugg of a migraine. Yikes. I was off on a road trip to my friend’s house in Worthing, which was to be my writing retreat for a week, didn’t the world know I didn’t need end-to-end traffic? I’d planned a writing itinerary, checked the weather and packed paper and hundreds of pens. What could go wrong? See the opening three sentences. With tears streaming down my face and the air blue from swearing at myself, I turned the car around and came home. Defeat; I hadn’t reached writing nirvana.

Coffee and chocolate and a phone call with the friend who was waiting to give me the key to her house/my writing retreat consoled me. Then – DOH – it dawned on me; there is no such thing as the perfect writing retreat. I just needed to get on and blimmin’ well write – right there, and then. Wherever I was.

I didn’t tell anyone that I wasn’t in Worthing. I didn’t let on that I was actually at home. Wow – the relief of knowing that friends and family believed me to be unavailable in No Wi-Fi Land, was palpable. I ignored the internet, forgot about social media and sat down and wrote. For six days straight. It was hard, hard work. Another lesson learned – a writing retreat is not a holiday. It’s work. If I was a full-time author, I would consider myself to be ‘at work’ not ‘on a retreat’.

There were long nights of the soul where I question what the eff my story was about and why the @@@@ was I writing it. There were moments of yay this is fab, and several yeeesssses out loud.

On day five, my Mum texted me to see how the seaside retreat was going….I had to ‘fess up. She was thrilled that I chosen to not let on so I could knuckle down to writing. ‘Well, you really have created a work of fiction’ she laughed. Almost, I replied. If I can let go of this ‘writing nirvana’ idea, and write, write , write, anywhere everywhere, I will finish this novel and start the next one. And the next…


I been a bad girl

Oops, haven’t posted in a while. This naughty lady can make it up for me.

It’s the latest edition of Shooter Lit Mag, Bad Girls and I’m thrilled to have a poem Table For One in there.

This edition edited by Melanie White and with cover art by Nevena Katalina, celebrates ‘women who buck convention, reject patriarchal norms, choose fulfilment over conformity and occupy traditionally male environments’.

My poem is sandwiched between an article about women walking by themselves, Miranda Chooses by Isabel Miles, and a short story in the distinctive voice of a teenage subversive Lilith Speaks by Clare Proctor. Placing my poem in the middle of this triumvirate gives it added depth, meaning and attitude – it is enriched just like all the other uniquely individual women’s voices in this collection are enriched by being together. It’s a stunner of an edition. Buy a copy here.

Hola word count!


Spain. My first ‘proper’ holiday for quite some time. By proper I mean nothing but a swimming pool, a beach and factor 50. And books instead of internet. Yup – no internet. Eek.

The first few days were spent getting acclimatised to sunny days so hot you could do nothing but lie on a lounger sweating, or escaping into the pool. Then I had to work hard to persuade my stomach that it really could wait until gone 9pm to eat dinner if it really tried.

It took a while to fully relax and get into the swing of doing nothing. But once this new routine had taken hold it was really joyful. Like being a child again with nothing to do but be in the moment. I loved not having internet. Goodbye Twitter peer pressure. Buena noches hotmail browser refresh angst.

The purpose of the holiday was to relax, read and then to write write write. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to keep the last part of the bargain and would go home with an empty notebook. But once mind and body were fully relaxed, the words just came pouring out onto paper. Thousands of them.

I’d taken a copy of my unfinished manuscript (aka the novel) with me, but tried not to refer to it or get caught up in editing. Instead, I sat pen in hand and wrote feverishly into a notebook. The mornings became a timetable of ‘get up and go straight into the pool for a swim, fruit for breakfast, grab a coffee and head to the balcony to write’.

Progress was so much more forthcoming than I had expected that I ended up doing the thing I try  to never do – I became obsessed with word count. Suddenly out of nowhere I set myself this goal of reaching 10k words before I went home. Many cups of coffee and morning swims later, and a few trips to the beach thrown in too, I had well over the 10k target. Time to go home.



Props (20 years in 20 minutes part two)

IMG_5575Off the page and onto a cup and plate. It seemed like a good idea at the time – writing poems onto china for a reading at the Ledbury Poetry Festival 2016.

It was the festival’s 20th anniversary, and china is given as a traditional gift for a a 20th, so it seemed fitting to use it as part of my 20 minute reading in the Master’s Room.

Weeks before the festival, off I went to the charity shops of Islington and bought some white plates and cups – 50p each, not bad. Then, help! How do you write on china? Thankfully a graphic designer friend knew what pens to use. So off I went to the art shop and found said pens – available in lots of lovely colours, like sweets. I raced home and laid out the plates, pens and poems onto a table. Then it dawned on me – my handwriting is appalling! Truly bad. Would anyone be able to read my scrawl? In fact – would I even be able to read my scrawl?

Having to slow down, use my best handwriting and really concentrate, meant I got to spend real quality time with every letter, each line, phrase and thought of my poems. Some of the poems were written especially for the occasion – site specific plate and cup poems. Some were existing poems that I was curating into the theme. Each one took on new meaning and showed me things I hadn’t noticed. It was great fun, and illuminating. And also a good lesson in editing – can you commit this word to ink on a china plate? No? Then edit, edit, edit.

Once the plates andphoto 3 cups were finished, I practised displaying them and picking them up as part of the reading. It made me swear and giggle. And it made me panic. What if using props was a big mistake and I should’ve stuck to good old-fashioned poems on paper instead?

Finally, the day of the reading arrived. Once my nerves had settled, I really enjoyed using the props, and relished the theatricality and symbolism. Each cup haiku and plate poem became a character in its own right, and an accomplice. I was no longer on stage by myself.

Thankfully I didn’t drop any of props, so the front row was spared any cuts or bruises. But I still had a …wait for it…a smashing time.


20 years in 20 minutes part one


Ledbury Poetry Festival is 20 years old this year. Wow. 20 years of Ledbury and poetry. What partnership lasts that long these days?

I’ve been going to the festival for 3 years in a row now, so while I have a long way to go to hit the 20-plus mark, I’ve had enough time to build a big affinity with, and a massive love for, this remarkable event.

So it was with jump-about-with-joy glee that I was chosen to be one of the 20-minute readers at the festival this year. Which then prompted a ‘why not go for the whole festival?’ plan.

My traveling companion and poet-in-crime was Jill Abram, who is responsible for introducing me to the festival in the first place. Thanks Jill! She’s also Director of the collective Malika’s Poetry Kitchen and every year she volunteers to event-manage some of the readings at Ledbury Festival. She’s particularly ace at this, and boy does she know her poets – so her introductions are far more entertaining than just a re-hash of what it says in the brochure or on the flyer. Here she is introducing Penelope Shuttle and John Greening at the launch reading of Heath published by Nine Arches Press.


And here’s Penelope Shuttle reading from Heath – a fantastic double-hander about Hounslow Heath (now Heathrow Airport) which both poets collaborated on, emailing information and poems back and forth between each other over the space of just a few months in a ‘kind of fervour’ as if driven by the spirits of past inhabitants of the heath, until a book was fully formed. Penelope and John read from the book in a way that was so comfortable and confident you could clearly see how much they’d enjoyed the collaboration. It worked – I bought the book!

Highlights of the festival for me were: the mix of musical genius and poets in free-fall at the Tongue Fu performance; the lively Versopolis readings and quality (free) pamphlets; a wonderful workshop with Mark Doty; the energy of local band Pablo Alto at the Punk n Poetry event;  the cuddly yet confrontational performance of Jonny Fluffypunk; the readings by Fleur AdcockHannah Lowe, Jacob Polley; the intimacy of all the 20-minute readings; hanging out with Jill, Adam Horovitz, Bare Fiction‘s Robert Harper, Jane Commane, Tania Hershman, Sarah Howe and Dominic Berry, like one big gang of badass poets; feeling full from big breakfasts; the stunning view from Symonds Yat Rock; escaping BREXIT blues in a bubble of creativity; the poignancy and beauty of the candle-lit vigil; the cheekiness of Carol Ann Duffy accompanied by various weirdly-shaped wind instruments; the fact that Little Machine played A poet sells his wares (aka Four-liners) and I got to sing along at the top of my lungs. To name but a few.

Bring on the next 20 years, I say. But I might need a nap first.



Growing poetry off the page


The word gin next to my name? Surely not.

Well, yes, of course, (as anyone who knows me can testify) – naturally. But this time the gin wasn’t winking at me from across the bar, it was smiling at me from the first line of my Girl’s Night Out poem attached to a…a tree? I’d been asked to tweet 140-characters of a first line to @ledburyfest in the run-up to the 2016 festival and here it was, emblazoned on a ‘tweet-poem’ banner along with the first line of a poem from each of the poets performing at the festival.

Once I’d got over the initial ‘ooh look my name’s near Fleur Adock’s’  pride, I couldn’t stop circumnavigating the tree, reading each line of poetry just for the sheer joy of movement and interaction. Sitting at a poetry reading is always a privilege, and I’m not knocking it, but getting up and walking around the tree – actually participating in poetry, using my legs as well as my eyes and ears – felt joyous.

The banners appeared at different venues and were hung from all manner of objects during the festival – as if placed by mischievous poetry elves during the night. I became obsessed with reading them and then photographing them to document the physicality. Poetry has had a massive resurgence, and I’m not advocating that we lose the printed page. I love books and paper (sorry trees!). But poetry is everywhere, comes from everywhere, everything, appears when we want to try to explain the human existence. So hurrah for poetry escaping from the page and popping up all over the place.


Reasons to be cheerful


After the BREXIT vote-shocker, I keep grasping at all the good things in life, no matter how small, to keep a reality check on my actual well-being right here, right now.

And there’s nothing like looking back to the very beginning of your blog to make you go all misty-eyed with happiness at how far you’ve come. When I wrote my first post back in 2010, I had no idea of all the things poetry-based (and prose-based) that I was yet to encounter. Back then, I had braved an open-mike in Kuala Lumpur, knees knocking, safe in the knowledge that no one there knew me, or would ever see me again.

Six years later and I’ve established myself as part of a vibrant community of poets, have been published, am working on my first solo collection and my first joint collection, have traveled to the States, been a poet in residence at Leicester Square tube, read at the iconic Ronnie Scott’s, featured at Ledbury Poetry Festival (more of that later)  and have made friends with generous-spirit people who genuinely support one another’s successes. It has all been a joy. And a privilege.

To attend readings and share the inner most thoughts of a complete stranger, to hear them try to capture the human existence in a stanza (the crazy fools!), to nod my head at an emotion beautifully pinned to the page by a couple of words or a phrase, to sit in hard chairs (poetry venues are not blessed with comfy seating) and be transported into a poetic ‘borg-like’ one-ness with humanity, to stand in front of an audience and share words that I’ve not yet said out loud to anybody but them, to test out new ways of performing, to learn how to stand still, to feel the fear and do it anyway. It’s something that no back-stabbing, Eton-grudge-holding tory can ever take away. Thank fuxit for that.

He/she gender blender


I love being part of the collective Malika’s Poetry Kitchen. It pushes me to write in a different way and about subjects I wouldn’t have even thought of approaching.

Each term, members can volunteer to hold one of the workshop sessions and last term I forced myself to raise my hand – despite huge nerves.

Several weeks passed and I hadn’t worked out what on earth would be the subject matter of my session. “Pick something you feel really passionate about,” advised Jill Abram, MPK’s Director.

I’ve always felt passionate about the power of place, but too many workshops already explore this subject. Then bingo – Sarah Howe won the T S Eliot Prize and was subjected to such questionable, sexist reporting (causing a twitter storm around one particular journalist’s remark that turned into the hashtag #derangedpoetess) – I knew I wanted to explore the language of gender.

Language is used to denigrate people of either gender. Correction, a gender that’s different to the writer’s own. Because let’s face it, the expansion on the M and F tick boxes is one of the biggest developments in humanity recently.

As poets we make conscious decisions about the exact word to use and when. But what if those words come laden with unconscious gender-bias? What if we’re accidentally using language programmed into us?

A lively debate ensued, aided by pink and blue post-its, mind-blowingly restrictive search engine definitions of male and female words, poems written by women and men, poems about and men or women, poems that kept you guessing. I then set some writing exercises based around using he and she, to see what the outcomes could be.

Admittedly, I could’ve kept a tighter rein on the ratio of heated debate to actual writing (lesson learned there for the next time I run a workshop) but to  be honest I was enjoying myself too much! It’s clear that language has a long way to go before becoming gender-neutral and that our own choices as poets may only be choices peppered with bias that we aren’t even aware of unless challenged.


Bursting at the seams with poets

Part One
Turns out us poets are quite fame-hungry.
When South Bank Poetry revealed that their January reading was going to be filmed by Channel Four, you could’ve been knocked over in the rush to secure a place on the open mike list.
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Hosts Katherine Lockton and Peter Ebsworth valiantly shepherded the hoards of poets (who’d formed a lengthy queue outside) into an orderly two and a half hours of vibrant poetry readings. I didn’t read, but I did shamelessly make sure I was in the front row, so I got to witness the jostling of countless open-mikers trying to get on the telly and to enjoy the full performance of featured poets without heads bobbing in the way. The featured readers were Agnes Meadows, Angelena Demaria, Patric Cunnane and Katherine Lockton herself, and the format of the monthly events is that the features read in both the first and second half of the evening – for me their poems, performances and differing personalities were the highlights of each half.

It was a fantastic evening and even though the camera crew wrapped-up and disappeared after the first half, the second half went on unabated. Poets gave their all, driven on only by a need to share, to bear witness and to commune with fellow human beings. The very idea of fame soon became forgotten and was replaced with the impossibility of expressing the human experience but trying, trying, trying to capture it . We are all our own cameras – selfie sticks and all.






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