think of it as a voyage, the poet says…Read me: What rain taught us
the world but
bones of light
through its hands ……
in lost iambic
light easy as she goes
John McAuliffe and Judy Kendall talk about What rain taught us
John McAuliffe says:
In the urgent poems of What rain taught us, Gail Ashton tests the limits of the lines she makes, framing and reorienting the spaces around their images, examining how images fade in and out of focus, navigating her way to an understanding of the terrors the poems describe. These poems see ‘the unspecified disorder of flowersand they make us grasp, too, ‘how sunlight frets// the shock of them, unfamiliar// with their dialect.’
An elegant, carefully ordered collection with a deep-felt narrative, although for me the story really resides in Ashton’s distinctive tone, those humorous but serious conversations and intimate touches that What rain taught us offers. Here, too, is a living and innovative conversation between poet and typographer which follows its own bold and peculiar trajectory to fly off mid-point with its text upon text, its half-hidden italics well suiting Ashton’s wry tone, and, at the end, a wonderful mirror-written piece juxtaposed by an asemic pixelated background to promise very interesting follow-ups in the future.
advance praise for What rain taught us
Matthew Francis: Rain, moonlight and the words of old songs haunt these poems, with their interconnecting threads of language and unexpected twists and turns on the page. ‘Think of it as a voyage’, the poet tells us, and indeed by the end we have travelled a long way through the seas of the imagination
Jane McKie: In What rain taught us, Gail Ashton is at the height of her lyrical powers. But what makes this collection stand out is the marriage of experiment to musicality, and the result is an amplification of potency. This collection, brave in content and form, presents a compelling, poignant and gripping narrative of life that sizzles with truth.
Once there was a book. It said What rain taught us. On this, possibly the darkest January day ever when sky heaves with grey north west rain, it’s hard to know anything other than that story.
Read it here, and @gailashton2012#WRTU over the coming weeks. Pre-order it here http://www.cinnamonpress.com or contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Like to know more about how Meet Me There came into being? Take a peek into the writing life? Read more: Jenny Cooke in Dialogue with Gail Ashton on Meet Me There (Cinnamon Press, 2015
I’d been reading a lot of creative non-fiction, much of it with place at its centre: Simon Armitage, Robert MacFarlane, the Country Diarists. And memoir too like Jeanette Winterson’s and Hilary Mantel’s work and interviews. At the same time a number of personal events came together. Both my father and a close friend were given terminal diagnoses at around the same time and actually died within a couple of weeks of each other this summer. Both dad and Jill were associated in my mind with the midlands which is where I’m from. And with Jill she was a reason why we’d go back ‘home’ to visit her. With her going there was another kind of loss, another lost link with the past and its places. We were also looking like we were leaving our house here in Cheshire. Every year I’d said it was time but when it came down to it I realised I was going to find it really tough. So place, roots, nostalgic yearnings, the effect landscape has on me, all of this was running through my head. That’s the impetus for the book and specifically for my own chapter in it. And ironically we’re still here. Maybe that’s another book!
How long did it take to get this book together from start to finish?
This was unusually fast! From first pitching ideas to Jan Fortune at Cinnamon Press and opening up our dialogue, contacting contributors, and then to first draft, polished piece, and publication was just under a year. In fact the longest part of the process was probably our initial discussion. I had suggested a number of permutations – and, inadvertently perhaps, another book entirely – and we wanted time to think these through. Jan also wanted this book to be a celebration of Cinnamon Press and some of its authors which meant it had to be published in 2015, the ten year anniversary of Cinnamon’s beginnings. Likewise, I needed to come up with a remit that both allowed contributors free rein to write what they wanted to say about this theme and made sure we were all highlighting similar aspects of a writing process; hence the writing tips, references back to work published with Cinnamon, and so on.
Another thing that made it very easy for me as an editor was that once I’d introduced the idea to Jan she was able to come up with a list of possible contributors to celebrate the press. They had to be Cinnamon authors so that we could be part of the anniversary ‘party’ year (we were always aiming for the end of 2015, for that big Cinnamon party weekend in Northampton in October). And obviously they had to be interested in the theme. The process of deciding a best ‘fit’ for the theme of place – and of thinking about a range of styles and approaches – was all down to Jan. And that personal knowledge – borne of Cinnamon’s fabulous hands-on, family-oriented publication, every individual author matters route – does I think really come into its own when anyone reads this book. For me there is a clear sense that for these particular contributors place is integral to everything they write. And that even though we are all writing about the same thing every chapter is unique. That was important to me, that there should be contrast, light, shade, poetry, prose, memoir, fact, fiction etc, that pieces should both overlap and rub up against each other in all kinds of productive and interesting ways. I hope that readers feel the book does just that.
What did you gain, do you think, by working with the nine other contributors?
Oh a huge amount – as I always do when I’m editing. I was lucky enough to know some of the contributors already and it’s always a pleasure to work with people you like and with whom you’ve had some kind of contact before. Jan is my editor of course so I know her well, and love her work, and we’ve also co-edited a poetry anthology for Cinnamon (Only Connect). I’ve done the same with Susan Richardson too (In the Telling) while Sue, Jan and I have also been part of the Triskele mentoring service. And we’ve all met lots of times at readings and events, as I have Ian Gregson. I’ve read Mavis Gulliver a lot and Jim Perrin too who – you will know this – is a Guardian Country Diarist. Most of the people I was working with were new to me though and that has been a particular delight, getting to know them and their work and loving it. A couple of those working relationships are already proving both personally and professionally productive, and I so enjoyed meeting a number of them at the Northampton weekend on 2-4 October, NN Gallery.
I particularly enjoyed the way autobiography links with place, time and poem in this work. Was this part of your brief? Or did the writers all approach their chapters similarly?
As I said everyone was free to write what and how they wished. But isn’t it interesting that this is a constant? I’m still thinking this one through to be honest. I wonder why it’s so. I think because of the way we acquire our voices (see next question) but am interested to know what you think Jenny or what anyone else has to say about this.
You made the point in your answer that this theme was ‘a bit of a constant in all the contributors’, even though you hadn’t specifically requested it. My further Q is to ask if you think this has to do with the self-awareness/ awareness of surroundings and landscape of a creative person? This awareness can be etched deep into one’s mind and be difficult to handle I think.
I think it is difficult yes, not least because we don’t talk about such things. Our lives today are fast, transitory; as I tried to suggest in my Introduction, we never really get to know a place now like we perhaps had to in the past. I’m old enough to recall that when I was a kid most of our family lived right next to each other, a street or so away, maybe a mile or two, and often in the same house. I grew up in extended family homes where more than one generation lived cheek by jowl. And even earlier than that, it would be a matter literally of survival to know your patch inside out. I still dream that I’m walking these old roads and pathways. What’s that about do you think? I don’t think writers are special people really. Perhaps it’s just that to write well there is a need to pay attention to something, somewhere, somebody. Perhaps that’s the landscape you speak of.
In the ‘Afterword’ interesting points are made about ‘voice’ and ‘voice as place’. Can you comment on this?
I think Jan Fortune says this much better than me. But I think it feeds into the kinds of things I write about in my own chapter and which almost every other contributor touches on too – which is that as well as the dialect/mother tongue we all speak (and so often seek to lose) and which shapes us as people, a landscape has a voice. It’s where our mother tongue comes from, forged by a literal topography. It’s what gives a people their stories, dreams, memories. A place scalded by mountain streams has a different voice from one where desert winds sing out. When we inhabit a place we are marked by that voice. It never really goes away. Jim Perrin can move to the Pyrenees but his stories bear the lilt of the Mabinogion. Mark Charlton carries Newcastle in his blood. Mavis Gulliver writes herself into and out of islands on the edge of a northern hemisphere, and though they are not ‘hers’ by birth they give her a voice with which she writes…
My second Q relates to the next point you make, about, ‘landscape has a voice… with a link to our mother tongue’. I find this fascinating. It links to my belief that landscape has been created by a Creator, so although it’s autonomous it’s not a spirit in its own right, and yet it has a voice, I agree. I sense I’m getting into deep water here! Not quite sure where to go next.
Perhaps you’re talking about how voice can’t be fully divorced from a kind of spirituality. I may not share your faith Jenny but I’d like to think I grasp something of how a place has its own energy, its own ‘feel’ and that in turn gives it its voice. I don’t know. Does that make sense, or go some way towards chiming with what you’re expressing here?
I did have an experience once about language. I was 18 and in a lecture on Anglo-Saxon. The lecturer suddenly began talking to us, or reading something out in a foreign language. After a few moments I felt as if I half-understood it, as if it were just below the level of my conscious grasp. Afterwards he explained he’d been speaking Anglo-Saxon, as written by Alfred the Great, I think. I felt the link though. It made me want to reach back into the far past.
I think we do have that awareness still, that it is a primeval instinctual sense whereby we are tuned still to strange voices and events – or could be if only we knew how to use the old ‘technology.’ There will have been something familiar about that tongue. Not the actual words as such, but its patterns, its cadences, the whole sound and rhythm of it, for we still hear it every day in our own languages, in our stories, in the old tales we rehash and retell. When I interviewed Jane Draycott about her reworking of the medieval Pearl poem – by the anonymous Gawain-poet whose dialect was similar to the one you speak here in the north-west midlands – she suggested that we still had some innate grasp of the aural ‘romance’ of this poem, still understood its careful metrics even though we would never say or think we did.
What gave you the idea of including the suggestions/ ideas at the end for less- experienced writers starting to write about ‘Place’?
In some ways I started with that idea. I was thinking about writing a practical writing guide, if such a thing is ever really useful, one aimed at ordinary people wanting to write rather than an accompaniment to an academic kind of course. Then I wasn’t sure if I really believe that writing can be taught. Only polished and honed and refined. I don’t know. Then other ideas crowded in.
Yet in the end I think if you’re reading a book about how writers write you probably have some interest in the process of writing too. And/or you might be inspired enough by what’s in here to want to write your own versions of place. So, bits of my thinking crept back into the end product. I suppose I also have this thing about giving back. By that I mean that no writing exists in a vacuum. It comes from so many places and influences and weaves such a vast and elaborate thread. It speaks in so many tongues to so many other voices. And so at the very least it might acknowledge the communities of readers and writers with whom it’s in constant dialogue. Sorry. Banging on here….!
There is the fascination of so many different places written about in this book. Did you expect such a variety?
No I don’t think I did, even though that was of course what I was after, a book that took us to all kinds of places and back again. In part that was down to Jan Fortune’s careful and judicious selection which I talked about earlier. This is interesting isn’t it? Perhaps because I’m fairly insular in all kinds of ways I was half-expecting others to be the same. But of course they’ve all had such varied and fascinating lives. What is a common thread though is that so many of us somehow ended by writing about a version of home, whether a past or childhood place and/or where we currently live. And from there about ‘fitting in.’ Or not. Maybe this is something that matters to writers? Or a primeval thing. Or else we should all be on the psychiatrist’s couch!
How did you come to write your first book? Indeed, what was its title?
The first one was an A level/undergraduate book about Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales written as I was finishing my PhD in medieval literature and after I’d left school teaching where I taught English and Drama. It was a one-off, throw-away approach to Macmillan made after one enterprising kid I taught had been selling one of the revision ‘workbooks’ I always produced to those in other classes. Macmillan kept me on file then commissioned me shortly afterwards as part of a new series they were publishing.
My first ever creative book was Ghost Songs (Cinnamon Press). I wrote most of those poems – because I just had to – while I was on research leave from the university where I was teaching (and when I was contracted to write something else entirely!).
What do you enjoy about writing?
I don’t always enjoy it. It has a certain slog to it and technical hitches stress me out. I especially hate proof stage, particularly if it’s a big academic type of book with references and difficult or slack copy editors. I think it’s more something I have to do, even if it’s only doodling lines in a note book or blogging or creating a list. I like to write things down. Though I’m pretty good now with the old smart phone voice memos and Dragon Dictate. Lines come into my head all the time. Conversations take place in my head or I’m writing something in that imaginative space even as people talk to me in ordinary conversations. I know I tune out a lot but have perfected the art of seeming to still be there! I overhear things or see something and often immediately think I need to note it, commit it to memory as it would make a great idea for a book, which I then never write of course.
What do you find difficult about writing?
Everything! Mainly getting down to it. I always have lots of ideas but I’m neither good at the discipline required, that bum on seat get on with it day to day stuff, nor at finishing as I lose interest and patience towards the end. Though I do always respond well to a deadline which is sometimes the only way to keep me on board. I’m a dreamer and prevaricator. I do lots of things in my head and always write last minute. In between times I write in fragments and phrases, increasingly the shorter the better. I also like projects to be quick. This one suited me down to the ground with a definite end point in sight and fast publication process. I just need whipping into line I think.
Have you any idea/ feel for where you’d like to go next with your writing?
Lots of things on the boil, as ever. Who knows which, if any, I will follow at any one time? Memoir: I began this then put it down but now my father has died I think I will return to that strange place. I’m currently coming to the end of what could be my third poetry collection, What Rain Taught Us, title. I have had plans for a novel about Emma Hardy for a while now. And then there’s the continued fascination with place, kind of travelogue cum reportage cum memoir bringing together my interest in creative non-fiction and medieval afterlives.
Well thanks so much for being willing to think about this, Gail. I think Meet Me There is one of the best books I’ve read this year. Congratulations!
Interview by Jenny Cooke 22nd September to 31st October 2015
More about Jenny Cooke:
Jenny Cooke lives near Macclesfield, Cheshire, with her husband, Francis and they both love art, music and the outdoors. She is married with three grown-up children and five grandchildren. She taught children with Special Needs for many years, including her grand-daughter who has Williams Syndrome and who has now learned to read. Jenny is seriously addicted to reading herself! Writing is a way of life. She has a Diploma In Creative Writing, with Distinction, from the OU (2011).
Publications include 2001 Omnibus Edition of The Cross Behind Bars (Kingsway Publications, reprinted 2003, original book 1983, reprinted 11 times); The Fabulous Four Series of 5 children’s books edited and adapted by Jenny Cooke (Harper Collins, 2000); Light through Prison Bars (Kingsway Publications, 1995,reprinted twice); The Storm and Other Stories (Hodder and Stoughton, 1990). Jenny contributed to Gail Ashton’s Introduction, Meet Me There (Cinnamon Press, 2015), and has a regular column in Inside Poynton magazine. She was runner-up in the 2013 Poetry Competition, Inside Poynton magazine