Notes from Skriduklaustur #5 – on being alone

I have got 4 days left of my writing residency at Skriduklaustur, in East Iceland.

I feel bowled over with gratitude for such an amazing and rare opportunity to take so much time to work on my writing, and in such a uniquely beautiful place.

The Fljotsdalur valley is one of the most beautiful places that I have seen in real life. Despite getting to travel more through writing and performance work in recent years, I still would not call myself a confident traveller, and I must admit I was daunted by the idea of coming all this way on my own, and staying in a place with no transport links or nearby amenities (I’m 39k from the nearest town).

People have been super kind and friendly, and in truth it has not been as scary or isolating as I was worried about, but still a challenge for a woman who grew up in a big,  noisy household and has always lived in cities!

I’m still ruminating on the effects of being alone on my creative process.

On the one hand, I have undeniably got lots of work done. I have managed to not only fully draft, but also start to edit and appraise and re-edit, this piece ‘Like The Water’ (mentioned in my previous post) which I have been trying to carve out the time to work on for years. I feel excited and intrigued by the results, and confident that I’ve got an interesting body of work which I can continue to work on back in the real world (it so much easier to work on and develop something which already exists than it is to create fresh work, in our busy lives). I have also finished a few articles (more on that later) that I had been commissioned to write, and had the creative time and space at explore other new writing – not attached to any particular project, just for the joy of making new poems, notes and ideas and squirreling them away until they’re ready to see daylight or be worked on later.

On the other hand, I have been second-guessing myself at every turn of the creative journey. Is this any good? Is it actually completely awful? Am I wasting this precious time by working on the wrong thing, weighting my time wrongly, pursuing work which is not high enough quality? In some ways, I still have no idea of the answer to these questions, and I don’t feel like I will know until I am back in my real life. It is as though being away from my reality – my friends, family, artistic community, and indeed any people at all, for the most part, has switched off my calibrator of what is and isn’t good writing, in my own work. It is interesting to realise, as a poet (ostensibly a very lonely pursuit) how actually collaborative my writing-mind is. I listen to and discuss and engage with other people at every step of the process of gathering ideas and creating work, often implicitly, and much more than I had realised.

There have been three undeniable advantages to working here, and working in solitude, though, and for those I am most definitely a better writer after this experience; this incredible setting (this house, the people who curate it, its resourses and this landscape around me) and the chance to explore it, the time and space to read everyday (and so much)*and of course, the lack of real-life distractions, meaning that I have now got those precious actual words on actual paper (and MS Word files) to work with, going forward!

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Ramya Chamalie Jirasinghe’s 2010 collection ‘There’s an Island in the Bone’. I bought this copy in Columbo in 2011 and it has been everywhere with me on my travels ever since; south-east Asia, Australia, Iceland.

*I have re-read Jackie Kay’s collection ‘The Adoption Papers’ and Ramya Chamalie Jirasinge’s ‘There’s An Island In The Bone’, two of my favourite books of poetry, both of which remind me what kind of writing I might one day create if I keep trying and learning. I have also read ‘The Good Shepherd’ and ‘Black Cliffs’ by Gunnar Gunnarson, two very different styles of novel, but both full of rich, loving, scary, and awesome descriptions of the Icelandic landscape, making them so brilliant to read whilst staying here, in the Fljotsdalur valley and in Gunnarson’s house! I  borrowed the english translations from the library here at the culture centre, and should you ever come across a translation in your own language then I really recommend both novels.

Notes from Skriduklaustur, East Iceland #4 -Like The Water

So the main reason I came here, apart from looking for waterfalls and falling off my bike, was to work on a piece I’ve been trying to have a proper go on for almost ten years. It has gone through so many configurations in that time, and is still forming itself really, so everything I say about it here can basically be prefixed with the sentence-starter ‘at the moment’.

Here goes. At the moment it is a long story / very short novel (piece of fiction, at any rate) in verse. It is broken into poems, like a collection of poems, but with a strong narrative throughout. It is set in Morecambe (or any northern seaside town where your imagination chooses to take you), and the voice is of a young woman who has been recently bereaved of her sister (step-sister, I suppose, but more on that later). To tell you any more would be giving too much away, but the themes I’m trying to deal with are; sexuality and mental health and grief in young people (especially young women), the ways in which a family can grieve seperately and collectively, and most importantly for me, it is a love letter to the non-nuclear family.

I will be editing and re-apprasing it for a long time to come, but it seems rude not to share a tiny peek at it, seen as we’re here.

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Excerpt- ‘Like The Water’, early draft.

 

Notes from Skriduklaustur, East Iceland. #3

This week I climbed up to Hengifoss, the second highest watefall in East Iceland. There is a tried an tested tourist path all the way up, but I’ll be honest I felt like an intrepid explorer, or Benedikt going to collect his sheep. There were parts where I couldn’t see another living soul, or even sign of life (house, car, road, shed) anywhere, which was an amazing feeling. The landscape up there reminded me most of the yorkshire moors, though obviously the mountains are much bigger. The floor is springy dry grass, mosses, low plants and rocks, and completely rough, no flat spaces.

I’ve also been cycling around the Fljótsdalur valley a lot, and fallen off my bike atleast twice from staring at the mountains instead of looking where I was going.

I visited The Wilderness Centre in the Óbyggðasetur Íslands (about 10k from where I’m staying). I was lucky enough to have a tour of the museum exhibit, even though it won’t be properly open until June. It is such a beautiful and special place, every detail of the place is restored in the old style, as though you are stepping into the past. Have a look here for more details http://www.wilderness.is/

Lastly, I have actually finished the first draft of the thing that I came here to work on. I’m going to share a tiny peep of it in a seperate post. Look out!

Notes from Skridulsklaustur, East Iceland #2

In the evenings, the sun dips behind my mountain and casts a shadow across the valley and up the moutain on the other side like a sun dial, letting me know its time to stop writing and make tea.

One of the curators of the museum and culture centre downstairs was kind enough to show me around the visitors centre this week. It is so full of juicy historical artifacts, it was brilliant. I can’t believe that I get to live and write in the house of Gunnar Gunnarsson, but also that there is Iceland’s only fully excavated monastery at the bottom of the garden! I can’t recommend enough that visitors to East Iceland come here and fill yourselves full of historical exploration.

There are waterfalls. When the sun is out, the air feels warm and you can comfortably bask on the lovely big rocks in short sleeves, feeling like the luckiest woman in the whole world. Once or twice I’ve been tempted to dip my toes into the rock pool thinking it might be a nice way to cool down, but the water is so cold that it almost burns.

The poems that I am working on are a small series that form a kind of story or short novel, mostly set around Morcambe, Lancashire. It feels counter-intuitive in a way to be surrouned by such strange and incredible scenery, and be writing about Morcambe! (Not that there is anything wrong with Morcambe, you understand). But that is the way with writing sometimes, you need the distance and change of scenery in order to choose the right pieces of a place to put into your writing.

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A narrow mountain path with a delightful sheer slope into a ravine along one side. It was also windy. Jeepers.

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Early notes from Skriduklaustur, East Iceland. May 2016

Early notes from Skriduklaustur, East Iceland. May 2016.

It is so quiet here. I woke up in the night because it was so quiet that I though something was wrong (city girl)

And there is so much daylight, almost a midnight sun

It is a bit like dreaming awake

I saw a young wild reindeer at the side of the road, with furry antlers, and looked him in the eye

There are geese in the fields, they came from England too. They are puddling about in the fields, waiting for the snow to melt so they can go up into the mountains to nest. Puddling and honking and waiting

There so many different birds that I’m not used to, and all the birdsong sounds so lovely and strange. I notice birdsong now, because Sam likes it, and that is one of the things about a marriage

Sometimes the water smells of sulphur

The land is so beautiful, but parts of it feel gloriously unwelcoming to humans, like it wasn’t ready for us. As you walk along sometimes there are whole stretches with very few grassy banks or flat stones that say come and sit here and look around, instead the mountains tell you to keep walking and breathing, so you do

All the grass is dry, the rocks are dry and hot, but there is water everywhere. Obvious when you think about it, snow running off the hills. It carves up the earth and the stone into islands, and you have watch your step

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New poetry collection / Iceland residency

Over the last year, in between learning to run sensory workshops for people with profound and multiple learning disabilities, and trying to stay financially afloat in the enemy-of-poor-people economy of my new home city of Brighton, I have been working on a new collection of poems…

It is called ‘Boys’ and will be published by Burning Eye Books in May of this year. Its a short collection exploring themes to do with…. you guessed it, boys. Growing up with boys, living with boys, fighting with boys, grieving for boys, and attemps to untangle some of the nonsense messages that this world we live in tells us about what boys (and girls) should say, think, do  and feel. I’ve worked really hard on it (along with my dear friend Jamie Harrison and his very sharp editorial brain), and I’m really excited that it will be available in real life very soon. I’m planning a small book tour in June to celebrate its release.

Also in May, I’m very very excited (and a bit nervous) that I’m going to be Writer in Residence at Klaustrid (managed by The Institute of Gunnar Gunnarsson) in the Fljotsdalur valley in East Iceland. It is situated at Skriduklaustur, which was built in 1939 by the famous Icelandic writer Gunnar Gunnarsson! Its apparently 40km from the nearest town. I full of trepidation about being so far from home on my own for a whole month, but also bubbling over with excitement about getting to explore a new part of the world, learn about a different culture, and have loads of time to get some writing done.

It took me SO long to get into the flow of writing and editing critically while I was working on Boys- its easy to get out of the right brain space, what with doing other work too, and money worries, and just being (as I am) prone to bouts of anxiety and depression which are not really conducive (for me) to a really meaty creative process. But now, just as the collection is finished, I find that I HAVE found my flow. New ideas come all the time, in my day to day thinking. I feel confident about knowing whether they’re shit or not, and pushing myself to work on them further if I think they’re ok. And best of all, I can feel the little magical wonderment compartment of my brain fizzing away- looking for magic, or ways of making things register as magic and unusual and fantastical, in the day to day. This often happens after a period of instensly working on something creative. The problem is that it is difficult to maintain once a project is finished and we are obliged to go back to normal life, with its bills and bedtimes and such. So, and I feel very super grateful about this opportunity to go to Iceland, and determined to use the time as productively as possible.

That’s all for now. Check back for details of the release date for ‘Boys’, I should know more soon!

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