What’s in a Kiss?

Here at Blue Door we’re delighted to welcome a new author, novelist Barbara Bleiman. She’s been exploring the connotations of a kiss and explains how her collection of stories, The Kremlinology of Kisses, evolved

Barbara Bleiman

Ten years ago, when I did an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, I started writing some short stories that were clustered around a particular idea – a concept, if you like – prompted by re-reading Anton Chekhov’s wonderful short story, ‘The Kiss’. I was bowled over by the way that Chekhov managed to invest something as seemingly simple as a kiss with huge emotional freight and significance. It made me think about the kiss and the part it plays in our lives. Sex is an obvious, highly charged subject for fiction but what about the kiss?

At the time, I wrote five or six stories involving different scenarios, kisses given and taken, wished for or rejected, in different contexts and time periods, from renaissance Italy through to contemporary London and even into the future. Later, as I was working on first, second and third drafts of my novel, I would step back for a while and give myself a little break by writing another ‘kiss’ story. People would say something in conversation and it would spark off a fresh idea; sometimes, a scene in a film would set me off in a new direction and get me writing a new story.

Gradually I accumulated more of them and this autumn I began to think that perhaps they might make a coherent collection. Here were thirteen stories, one of which had already been published in Birkbeck’s book The Mechanics’ Institute Review, another of which has been selected for an anthology for the secondary classroom, due out in the autumn. But commercial publishing houses are reluctant to invest in short stories.

What to do? I could go down the route of self-publishing. Instead, having learnt about Blue Door Press, I decided to submit the collection to the wonderful group of writers who set it up and publish through it. This co-publishing model offers a third way between self-publishing and mainstream, which means all books will be professionally edited and designed.

A few months after submitting, I received the thrilling news that the group had read my manuscript, loved the overall concept and the stories themselves and were happy to welcome me on board as a new Blue Door Press writer.

Now more really hard work begins. I have had brilliant collective editorial comments from the group and a discussion with Pamela Johnson about polishing the stories, the process of preparing them for publication, the choice of a title, cover and ways in which BDP can support me in this. In return, I’ve agreed to contribute what I can to the Press. One thing I’ll be doing (drawing on my expertise from my working life) will be to work on the BDP’s social media presence.

My collection The Kremlinology of Kisses should be due out early in the new year. I can’t wait to see it in print, with the Blue Door Press logo on its spine.

 

 

TAKING LIBERTIES with The Goose Woman

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Many of the poems in The Goose Woman focus on a village in Bohemia. I did worry that a neighbour might come across them and take offence but decided that was unlikely. The collection was in English, published in Britain, I was safe. And there were only a few poems that might be insensitive.

However, when asked by Svět Knihy to talk on a panel about translation, and read a few examples, the risk became more pressing. Svět Knihy is a book fair held annually in Prague in May, both a trade fair for publishers and a literature festival, combining promotion with readings, discussions, argument. The events are held in Výstaviště, exhibition grounds that were built around an industrial palace in 1891.

This year had the usual long queues to get in, people of all ages in a three days extravaganza, a celebration of books: fantasy, romance, TV cooks demonstrating their dumplings, people hunched over incredibly complex, incomprehensible interactive games, talks on politics, philosophy…

An event at the Cafe Europa was about Brexit, with an emphasis on its literary ramifications. David Vaughan moderated and Bernie Higgins and I identified ourselves as fully Europeans, and tried not to get too heated. Questions from the audience included confusion about what the Labour party or more precisely Corbyn was up to. Fintan O’Toole was quoted from Heroic Failure ‘…the strange sense of imaginary oppression that underlies Brexit. This mentality is by no means exclusive to the Right.

The poetry events were held in the Lapidarium. This extraordinary museum houses stone sculptures dating from the 11th century. I could only hope that no one in the audience or wandering through looking at the original statues from Charles Bridge would glance over at the poems projected wall size behind me.

I was asked ‘How has your relationship with Czech (and a Czech) affected your poetry? Which was impossible to answer. The second question ‘because of your close relationship with Czech and your translators (Aleš and Tomáš), when you are writing do you ever pause and deliberate on whether to use a line that you know will be difficult to translate into Czech?’ made me realise I’d failed completely to consider and value translators. Tomáš Míka talked about the difficulty in translating ‘One Made Earlier’  from Stories & Lies. It looks impossible but he did it – a few in the audience were even familiar with the reference to Blue Peter.

Then I was asked to read ‘I Am Slabce’ from The Goose Woman. My untruths/exaggerations were projected behind me; no one seemed to have any difficulty in understanding. Slabce was less than eighty kilometres away; I could only imagine Mr Novak or the mayor or Vladimir wandering in and being appalled by such slander.

Is the poetry world of cravats and bow ties slowly disappearing?

Possibly. Or so Ian McMillan, a poet from Barnsley and presenter of The Verb on Radio 3, heard Daljit Nagra, a prize winning poet from London, suggest when the two were chatting in the interval at the RFH during the TS Eliot shortlist readings.. You can hear some of the shortlisted poems on iPlayer until the first week in February.

Daljit described how different the poetry world seemed to him twenty years ago. Poets (with or without cravats) were mostly preoccupied with themselves and elitist. Now there are more people ‘singing from the margins’, about gender issues, sexuality, race. Poets are writing confidently, are able to speak freely, unlike in the more limited possibilities of the non-poetry world.

The ten shortlisted represented this change in both North America and Britain. Poets are being daring with form, more are using the long poem; they are doing something with poetry that can honestly address identity politics. Poets now dramatise, have nuance, they look at the small p of poetry. Collections are no longer a list of lyric poems; poets are going back to the roots of poetry, to Chaucer, Beowolf, The Ramayana, so the ‘ reader can walk up to the poem and be challenged’.

The judges, Daljit Nagra, Sinéad Morrisey and Clare Pollard chose as the winner Hannah Sullivan who won the £25,000 prize against strong competition with her brilliant debut: Three Poems. The first, You, Very Young in New York is a ‘wry and tender study of romantic possibility, disappointment and the obduracy of innocence’. Repeat Until Time ‘unfolds into an essay on repetition and returning home’. The Sandpit after Rain explores the birth of a child and the death of a father.

You can hear an extract read by Hannah Sullivan:

 

Poetry in Prague

 

 

After Poetry in Aldeburgh just keep going east and there is the water of the Vltava rather than the sea…

IMG_0036 and it’s two weeks of poetry in Prague.

 

  • Den poezie is an annual international and multicultural poetry festival held for two weeks every November around the birth anniversary (16.11.1810) of the great Czech Romantic poet, K.H. Mácha. It is the most widespread poetry event in the country with events now taking place in around 60 Czech cities, towns and villages. Almost all the events are free. This year’s Den poezie runs from 12th – 26th November and its theme is Labryrint světa / Labyrinth of the World (after the work of the great Czech humanist and educator, Jan Amos Komenský – Comenius.
  • In the 2017 programme there are two events in English – on Tuesday, 14th November at 7 pm in the library of Anglo-American University, Letenská 5, Prague 1 there is a reading by poets Stephan Delbos (US) and Jane Kirwan (UK), who will read their own poems, and the Irish poet Justin Quinn will read from his new translation of the works of Czech poet, Bohuslav Reynek, The Well of Morning. David Vaughan of Czech Radio will moderate. The second event takes place on Tuesday, 21st November at 7 pm in the Literary cafe Řetězova, Řetězova 10, Prague 1 when Scottish poet, novelist and playwright Alan Spence, recently appointed ‘Makar’ of Edinburgh, will read his poetry.
  • Den poezie first took place on just one day in 1999, and marked the launch of a Poezie pro cestujíci (Poetry on the Metro) project initiated by the festival founder, the Literary and Cultural Club 8 (Renata Bulvová and Bernie Higgins). The festival is now coordinated by the Poetry Society (Společnost poezie), a small group of people involved in literature/teaching who work as volunteers to organise events and promote interest in poetry. Year by year, the length of the festival extended, as more and more organisations and towns participated, until it reached its current two-week duration

 

Hidden – a memoir

Here at Blue Door Press we’re delighted to be publishing our first memoir, Hidden by Annabel Chown, a beautifully written, thoughtful book, scheduled for September 2020.

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Aged 31, Annabel was diagnosed with breast cancer. At the time a successful architect with a busy London social life, this came as tremendous shock. In Hidden, Chown charts each stage of the treatment and her growing understanding of different kinds of architecture – those of her own body and the structure of the life she’d built up. Is this what she wants?

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Annabel Chown, in the Swiss Alps, 2017

As Annabel recalls, “It was a very challenging time, but also – in a strange way – an intriguing time, as I was catapulted from my familiar worlds of architecture deadlines and dating into the hinterland of cancer and its treatments. I wrote Hidden because I wanted to create something meaningful out of the devastating diagnosis.”

Fast forward almost a decade and Chown makes another startling discovery about her illness which has meant having to make more choices.

This is not a gloomy book. It’s one woman’s story about learning to accept what life throws at you, learning how to make positive changes. Now she’s ready to share that story, “I’m excited to be putting my book out, and I hope it can support and inspire others in the same situation. Recently, I’ve been revising the manuscript as I prepare it for publication and it’s been interesting to realise how much I’ve changed and my life has changed. Life can actually be better after cancer, something I would never have believed at the time.”

You can read more about Annabel’s story in the November issue of Red magazine, but do come back in September 2020 when you can read the full story in Hidden.

Summer Solstice Readings for National Writing Day at the Word Bookshop, New Cross

I had a very enjoyable day at Goldsmiths on the summer solstice to celebrate National Writing Day. The summer solstice is:

“the time at which the sun is at its northernmost point in the sky(southernmost point in the South hemisphere), appearing at noon at its highest altitude above the horizon.”

It is midsummer; the heart of this glorious season, a time when Vikings used to resolve legal disputes, when the sun would align with the Wyoming’s Bighorn medicine wheel and magnificent Aztec architecture, and the Ancient Chinese would honour the earth which embodied the feminine force known as yin. It’s no surprise then that storytellers, poets and writers have been drawn by its power. In 1987, myself and a group of students from Sussex university put on a play on the summer solstice to honour the trees that fell in the 1986 hurricane. I wrote a fictionalised account of this night in my novel, Who Do You Love, and this prompted me to see if I could celebrate the solstice again. The fact that it was also National Writing Day meant that there were many people interested in getting involved. The following things happened:

First, Goldsmiths English PGCE students hosted a writing workshop in the Goldsmiths allotment. You can find the excellent worksheet they produced on Scribd here.

 

English PGCE students in Goldsmiths allotment, June 21st 2017
English PGCE students in Goldsmiths allotment, June 21st 2017

Second, although she could not be at Goldsmiths, Ursula Troche wrote these two poems to celebrate National Writing Day and the solstice.

 

Third, myself and a number of other writers, including Ian McAuley, Helen Bailey, Peter Daniels, Julie Hutchinson and Magda Knight read at the Word Bookshop. Here are the videos of their readings. They are audible, but the noise in New Cross can be heard at times; it was very hot and we had to leave the bookshop door open!

Who Do You Love by Francis Gilbert

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‘I enjoyed Who Do You Love a lot. It’s beautifully-written, very funny about sex and the excruciating confusion of being young and single then middle aged and trapped. I think you’ve captured something about a generation in a way that will touch a lot of readers…. Really, a terrific novel.” Amanda Craig, literary journalist, and author of A Vicious Circle and Hearts and Minds.

Nick is cracking up. In his mid-forties, he has just been sacked as an arts journalist, with little prospect of getting such a well-paid, prestigious job again. Even more worrying for him is his suspicion that his wife, a Deputy Head at a school, is having an affair with a much more successful person: does she want to trade in Nick for a better model?

But most devastating of all is the fact that he learns that a former lover, Ellida, has died. Unable to find a new job, Nick miserably fails, despite his best attempts, to be pro-active and positive, and retreats into memories of the past.

By turns comic, tragic and romantic, Who Do You Love is a stirring novel which explores the big issues of passion, death and grief; a fast-paced contemporary love story but also moving exploration of what it means to be alive today, which should appeal to fans of writers like David Nichols, Ann Tyler and Nick Hornby.

Why I wrote my autobiographical novel ‘Who Do You Love’…

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J. had died, and the news shocked me. Our relationship had been intense when I was at university, but we’d parted on bad terms. Learning of her death nearly twenty years later from a mutual friend made me feel desperately sad that I had not said goodbye.

At the time, I was working on an education book – I had successfully published several – but I was blocked after hearing this news. I fell into a writerly depression: what was the point?

I ruminated about our passionate but difficult affair in the late 1980s. It was still the last gasp of the analogue age – a decade before laptops, pre-digital cameras and smart phones – and I had no photographs, videos, Facebook status updates, only a set of dog-eared spiral notebooks in which I wrote my diary in my loopy italic handwriting. Digging out my notebooks from the attic jogged my memory, and I began writing a memoir about knowing J. all those years ago. My depression lifted a little but then returned when I felt that I was not communicating the energy, the joie-de-vivre of our time together.

Eventually I gave myself permission to start inventing, turning my own life into a story. It was only then that I found I was writing my way out of the gloom. A new character formed, Ellida (pronounced El-leada), a composite of people I have known and J. The situations that I described were heightened amalgamations of events in my own life. I recast my friends from university as characters, and conjured up a “real” time when I penned a mime play on the summer solstice on a wooded crest of the Sussex Downs, written in response to the terrible hurricane of October 1987. Hundreds of people flocked to see the play; it was both a moment of triumph and humiliation for me as I swallowed a lot of magic mushrooms and had a bad trip. In Who Do You Love, Ellida rescues Nick — the version of myself who appears in the narrative — in a way that echoes, but doesn’t duplicate, what happened in my own life; but Ellida makes the lanterns for the play in the novel, just as J. did in “real life”. There’s a mingling of the truth and fiction which I hope gives a sense of my feelings at the time.

Nick and Ellida visit his grandparents in Northumberland — just as J. and I visited my grandparents in Northumberland. Writing these sections of the novel was the most emotional of all writing experiences I’ve had. I found that writing about them and their dilapidated farmhouse in Northumberland and roaming that incredible wild landscape with its ruined castles and sand-duned coast with my lover was intensely cathartic.

The novel went through many versions as I tried to perfect it for publication. Pam Johnson of Blue Door Press read it in a late draft and was very helpful in suggesting some key motifs that might be threaded through the novel. She was concerned that the wife in the novel, Hadley, was not sympathetic enough; she suggested some ideas which really helped with building a more rounded character. She also pointed out to me the importance of Thomas Hardy’s “At Castle Boterel” in the novel, and showed me how I might emphasize this more clearly. Jane Kirwan pointed out that I needed to illustrate the grandmother’s formidable intelligence more subtly. Both Jane and Pam have been very supportive in helping me find a good cover for the book: working with Sam Sullivan at http://newingtondesign.com/ has been great. The latest cover idea is posted at the top of the article. Being part of Blue Door Press has been a revelation; I have worked with several publishers before, but never had this sense of working with kindred spirits. After 7 years of working on it, Who Do You Love is now ready for publication; it’s truly been a psychic journey for me, taking me through a whole gamut of feelings from despair to joy.

HAPPY CHRISTMAS !!!!

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To all Blue Door friends, have a wonderful book-reading holiday! We’ll be using this time to catch up on The Crown and mainlining mulled wine … and reading.

It’s not too late to buy books for presents, Taking in Water and Don’t Mention Her are available from Muswell Hill Books and The Owl, Kentish Town as well as from Amazon.

Thank you for your support in 2016. It’s been an overwhelming if extraordinary year. One reaction to all the horrors is to escape into a book.  We have plenty planned for 2017 so keep an eye on us!