Thursday, 16 February 2017

Cosmological Poems for NASA Chandra X-Ray Observatory

(Image: NASA/CXC/Univ. of Alberta/B.Tetarenko et al; Optical: NASA/STScI; Radio: NSF/AUI/NRAO/Curtin Univ./J. Miller-Jones)

As part of the second year undergraduate Creative Writing module, "Using Stories," students explore some of the overlaps between science and writing. This year, Dr. Ian Whittaker from the Department of Physics and Astronomy gave an amazing guest lecture on various remarkable astronomical phenomena; and students were encouraged to write poems inspired by cosmological research, and, in particular, the ground-breaking work of NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory in Harvard. We subsequently ran a poetry competition in conjunction with Chandra, for which students were invited to submit poems inspired (directly or indirectly) by one of Chandra's news stories.

The winning poem has now been chosen. The winner of the competition is Fraser McIntosh, with his poem "VLA J2130 + 12." You can read the winning entry published on NASA Chandra's famous website here

There were also two runners-up, by Alicia Saccoh and Olivia Titherington, which are featured below. 

Musicality: 10

When I turn my insides out for you, I let them hit the boards.
Every stage I’ve ever taken, ever floor I’ve fallen on,
They all hold my DNA within the graining of their wood.
It soaks me up. I get so thirsty, but it fades when I spill blood,
The purest form, you see, of beauty

Is the dying, desperate swan, her joints near-breaking – 
Oh, they must be!
How else could her body do – ? But no,
She lives
She breathes
She moves
And weeps 
And dances hard and long,
Hard and long.
All through the day,
And night,
No sleep! Hearts to be won!
And how could I waste time to eat 
When the extension of my upheld wrist 

Throughout the grand jeté,
Is not yet quite – just – so?
Tell me: how could I? I could not, 
And so I wake up, 
Get up; dark out, lights on
Stretch out, warm up
Oh, and where's the day gone? 
It's almost time for bed again
My blood is on the floor again
I've never been more beautiful. I am sure to be fed. 
The moment comes, 
The lights illuminate me 
And your cries immortalise me
And the moment forces me to break myself again,
And the music grabs and tears at me 
And pulls me by my hair 
And still the promise of your love
Is rising, forcing my feet up, 
Up, up!

Ankles well over toes and turned right out and held so high 
And – there.
That is how it happens. 
That is how a tired thing flies. 

By Alicia Saccoh, inspired by Chandra's press release ‘Astronomers Discover Powerful Cosmic Double Whammy,’ January 5 2017. 

The Sun and Her Children

She is the oldest woman of the sky,
The sun lit the earth from above and high.
Bright and burning with her orange-red glow,
Her presence was loved by creatures below.
And when she had burned and the day was done,
The light was hidden, the darkness had come.
She knew it was the time to take cover, 
As the Moon would soon rise and take over.
His grey light was no match for her fire,
But still he did always desire
To keep the night and to take back the day, 
And keep out the sun much to her dismay.
And when day was over she’d weep all night, 
Sadness that came with darkness dimmed her light.
The late hours and night were a loss she’d mourn,
Until she did have her spot back at dawn.
And when the light mellowed and the dusk came,
Her joy was gone, she not did feel the same.
This sky, the moon and she would always share,
She knew that it could never be for her.

On time went and centuries passed by,
Like different visitors in the sky.
They greeted the sun and they left their mark,
She knew they would not be there after dark.
And now only few of her friends remain,
The Thunder and the lightning and the rain.
Despite her sorrow the sun still burned bright,
But longed for company in the dark night.
She wished for something she could call her own,
Something she could love and have at her home.
With this wish the silver stars were now born,
They were with her at dusk and stayed at dawn.
The sun was radiant and with joy she beamed,
She was not alone at night when she dreamed.
Stars filled the sky with glittery glow,
They sawed and glistened, and put on a show.
Their presence dazzled the creatures of Earth,
The sky was brighter now than the Sun’s birth.

In the middle of the glowing Sun’s joy,
The silver Moon still remained sly and coy.
He had become ugly, jealous, angry,
He stayed in shadows of the family.
He had had enough of the stars and her,
He planned to take the stars, he did not care.
And when the night came again the sun slept,
And with a vision the sleepy moon crept.
To commit the greatest heist ever done,
And he took out the bright stars one by one.
They were iridescent but not as much,
The result of his cold and icy touch.
The stars fought to stay with their mother,
They pleaded to stay with one another.
He had no mercy, he stole them away,
They never again saw the sun or the day.

The sun awoke from her restful night’s sleep,
She found out what happened and she wept.
Although she still burned and glowed forever,
She did not rise at dawn for whatever.
Two full moons had appeared and then gone,
And still the sad sun had not rose or shone.
The earth was festooned in sheets of white cold,
The result of the darkness staying bold.
The creatures of earth longed for her yellow heat,
And yet the solemn sun still retreated.
They wished on the stars that stayed in the dark,
They remained with their silhouette stark.
These stars mourned for these creatures below,
So with their power they burned bright and glowed.
Sun saw their light in sadness and despair,
Finally she had power to repair
The moon’s touch and she rose in the dark sky,
The ice melted and the creatures sighed.
The sun saw how much she was longed for,
And vowed to rise each day forever more.

The sun rises in the early hours,
Until the dusk comes and the moon towers.
Earth is not ever-bright as it had been,
The sun still shone but was not always seen.
She remains modest in some cold seasons,
Her sleep and rest does not need a reason.
But the Earth still spins and life does go on,
For they know she will not always be gone.
Some months she provides warmth everywhere,
Some months Earth is cold and sunlight is rare.
Some months she is discreet behind the clouds,
Some months they await her and say aloud:
“She’s there, it’s warmer, and flowers will bloom!”
As she guides them from the cold weather’s gloom
This season is spring starting the year,
No one complains because summer’s near.
The sun is content, with Earth as her friend
But she won’t forget, her heart will not mend.
She still wishes the stars were there by her side,
Burning bright by her, with her as their guide.
The stars remember the bright fire always,
The one who stands alone throughout the days.
The stars still follow the moon in the night,
But they glow for her with eternal light.

By Olivia Titherington, inspired by Chandra's press release ‘Astronomers Gain New Insight into Magnetic Field of Sun and its Kin,’ July 27 2016.

Monday, 30 January 2017

Next Leicester Shindig!

Next Leicester Shindig: Open-Mic Poetry Evening, hosted by the Centre for New Writing, Crystal Clear Creators and Nine Arches Press: Monday 30 January 2017 from 7.30pm at The Western Pub, Leicester. Free and open to all! Sign up for open-mic slots on the door. Featured writers are Andrew Button, Deborah Tyler-Bennett and writers from Under the Radar Magazine.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

"Caterpillars" by Hannah Stevens

Here is a piece of flash fiction by Hannah Stevens, which was first published in The New Luciad - the literary magazine hosted by the Centre for New Writing at the University of Leicester. The New Luciad will be open for submissions again soon.

Hannah Stevens is from Leicester and is a PhD student in Creative Writing at Leicester University. She has published a short story collection called Without Makeup and Other Stories (Crystal Clear Creators, 2012) and has had stories published in Crystal Voices (2015), The New Luciad (2015) and others.


They’re laughing. They think it’s all a joke. The youngest one is collecting them from the low leaves of trees. She screams when they move in her hand. The older one holds them beneath the water in the bucket with a stick. 

They are my children and they’re drowning caterpillars. I wonder if they know that these crawling things would’ve become butterflies. 

Soon, the childminder will be here. Maybe she will tell them. Maybe they will cry. 

My bags are already in the car. I have written a note that I will leave by the kettle when I go.  

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Interview with Natalie Beech, by Sonia Tailor

Natalie Beech is the Associate Playwright for Written Foundations Theatre Company, with her play Collegiate making its debut at The Bread & Roses Theatre last year. Her short plays have won competitions with Sheer Height Theatre Company and Unmasked Theatre Company, going on to be performed at Arcola Theatre, The Hawth Theatre and Story City Festival. She also works with local universities to run workshops and create issue-based drama, with short plays The Island and Currents recently performed at De Montfort University.

A few weeks ago, Natalie gave a playwriting Masterclass, along with director Brigitte Adela, for students on the M.A. in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester

ST: How do you explore modern issues through the use of drama?

NB: I think it’s important to examine points of view that are not yours, in order to explore an issue properly. Audiences are intelligent and it’s important that you don’t insult that, or leave them feeling you are biased or haven’t considered something properly. I personally want to use drama because I think live performance and theatre commands people’s attention in a way almost nothing else does right now. If you’re watching a film, reading a book or an article, you can easily be distracted by your phone, social media etc. With drama, there’s a human being in front of you, emotionally responding to the impact of the issue you are exploring. There’s something very intimate and powerful about that.

ST: Why is it important for you to present the perpetrator’s viewpoint in your plays?

NB: I don’t think we really get anywhere in tackling issues if we don’t explore the perpetrator’s point of view, or try to understand why they commit an act or their mentality at that time. Plus - I think it is fascinating to go into the mind of someone who is very different to you, that’s the fun of writing!

ST: What techniques do you use to create strong voices?

NB: I often use the voice of people I have met or know, to help get speech patterns accurate and realistic. I am a firm believer that character is the most important aspect of drama, so making sure you know your characters inside out will mean that they become real people in your head, and write the story themselves.

ST: How do you maintain a balance between exposition and drama?

NB: Exposition can be used interestingly, particularly with monologues. Having your characters decide what they want to tell an audience about themselves and what they want to hide is great on stage, and allows audiences to come to some of their own conclusions about your characters and story. It’s fairly obvious, but I think I would just advise not to show all of your cards at once, slowly reveal things over the course of your story, and that will create drama in itself.

ST: How do you effectively intertwine dialogue with monologues?

NB: Monologues can be quite hard going for an audience, so it works to break it up with dialogue and vary things a bit. I tend to use monologues when I want the audience to see the drama through the perspective of a character, and dialogue when I want them to see how something is in in reality. This dictates how I intertwine them and why I decide to use dialogue or monologue.

About the interviewer
Sonia Tailor is a political writer, studying an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. She has organised vigils and demonstrations, and in 2007, she travelled to Jordan to make a documentary about Iraqi refugee children. For many years, Sonia was the Youth Page editor for Peace News (newspaper) and she currently runs a book blog on Instagram: @soniareads.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Review by Annalise Garrett of "The End" ed. Ashley Stokes

It is inevitable that there will be a moment in our lives where we will think the end is near, whether the thought is triggered boarding a plane, watching a loved one die of old age or an accident, or even those close calls that make you question how you survived such an event. Fifteen Endings to Fifteen Paintings is a project by Nicolas Ruston to explore how an art form can operate through different media, as described in the introduction of the book The End, edited by Ashley Stokes. The book consists of fifteen interpretations by writers who have chosen one painting each by Ruston. Each painting is ambiguous with few hints towards the genre of the short story that follows it. 

Every chapter captures the emotional response of its writer, inspired by a black and white etching by Ruston. ‘The End’ is first seen as a large, dominating white text situated in the centre of each painting, and is also the central theme for the fifteen narratives that follow each painting. Fifteen detailed, uncomfortable, thought-provoking narratives present a multitude of emotions. Some paintings are much clearer than others in that they present us with a familiar object, hinting what the story that follows will entail. Each painting is then crafted into words, as it were, to arouse feelings of anxiety, or nostalgia in the reader, or even perhaps to draw the reader into the writer’s paranoia and vision of ‘The End’.

There, of course, are chapters you connect with and are more drawn to than others – paintings and stories that speak to your unconscious mind, your own anxiety and experience with more power than others. There were times where I felt suffocated, uncomfortable when reading certain stories. The stories vary in style and content. The power behind chosen sentence structure and word choice changed my mood and at times I had to put the book down to walk away for a moment before returning to complete the story. Even now I am reminded of the stress I felt on one particular interpretation of a painting. Each story, each memory presented a new thought, a new location, a new passage to the end of something, whether it is life or opinion, whether it is the narrator’s life or someone they are observing. Something ends, even if it is the fictional story itself.

On finishing each story, my attention was drawn back to the beginning of the chapter – the image of ‘The End’. At times the first few lines of a story directly connected image to text, or sometimes it was the final sentence or idea, or even the story as a whole. Back and forth I flicked from painting to word, from chapter to chapter; I sometimes understood the connections, and sometimes I was so caught in the narrative I forgot the painting. There are recurrent themes – such as reference to someone dying, something or someone leaving, or even a habit abandoned. In this way, the reader is teased by the notion of the end throughout. I felt a constant anticipation to find out what will end, who will end and even why.

When each story ended I found myself back to comparing the painting to the words, or the memory, the narrative, the character or setting. Stokes is right in saying the book never ends and you will re-read it: I have read it twice and I want to read it again. When walking in the street or around the house I picture my surroundings like the painting, a black and white etching telling me a story, an end; I text my family and friends more often now than before. The End: Fifteen Endings to Fifteen Paintings made me think about my situation, my thoughts, and I hope others look at these painting by Ruston and their interpreters’ stories. 

About the reviewer

Annalise is a student in her third year at the University of Leicester, studying BA English. She is currently on an Erasmus year abroad at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Outside of her studies Annalise paints and writes as a hobby, hoping to use her degree to work towards a career within the art industry. 

Friday, 30 December 2016

Review by Ariane Dean of "Trysting" by Emmanuelle Pagano

When looking back on any relationship, whether it be with a partner or a much-loved friend, there are small moments that may seem insignificant, or may seem hugely important, but that nevertheless stay with us long after that person has left our lives. Emmanuelle Pagano’s book, Trysting, is a love song to the small moments, whether they are good or bad. Not so much a collection of short stories, but gathered snippets from people’s lives, written first in French and entitled Nouons-nous, it has since been translated into English by Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis. The book is published in English by And Other Stories, and in the original French by P.O.L.

Every passage is short, the longest being around a page and half, the shortest just one line. This approach gives one the feeling of dipping into someone’s memories, exploring their past, and examining the responses that they may not have given at the time. Each piece is beautifully crafted, and even the bad times are recounted in a steady, calm manner, providing reflection and peace to experiences of great emotion.  The little tales are deeply nostalgic, a glimpse inside the mind of a stranger.

What I adored about this book was that nearly all the passages were non-gender specific. The stories are told in first person, and while they reference pronouns for their partner, the speaker tells little about themselves, enabling the reader to easily input their own personality and experiences into the story. Sometimes it feels like a friend confessing something they had long kept bottled up, other times it is something you yourself had half forgotten. Each passage works in a new object, place, or time, and finds new meaning in simplicity.

Although the stories are unrelated, there is a strong sense of them being tied together, with an underlying theme of the strengths and weaknesses of human nature. The people in these stories seem very real – they are dealing with ordinary worries and loves. However, Pagano’s beautiful writing and the incredible translation makes them seem vastly more important. There are lines that stayed with me for a long time after I had finished reading, and sections that I read aloud to my partner that conveyed ideas far better than I ever could.

My final thoughts on Trysting are that it was unexpectedly comforting. I had expected after the first few stories to find them sad, a little heart-breaking. Dipping in and out and reading a few little stories every now and then, I discovered that the book makes one feel much less lonely in traversing the difficult points in human relationships. Emmanuelle Pagano’s calm, measured approach to the uneasy things that could be made dramatic far simpler, and I closed the book feeling surprisingly much better than when I went in.

About the reviewer
Ariane Dean is a third year student at the University of Leicester, studying English. She has written theatre and comedy reviews for Buxton Fringe Festival over the last three years, and is working on editing past NaNoWriMo attempts to try and make them readable.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

"Letter to Santa" - a poem by Malka Al-Haddad

Letter to Santa 

Dear Santa,
When you arrive on Christmas Eve could you please bring back our dreams that have been stolen 
My school
my friends 
that became ashes under fire

The roof of our house 
The smell of Mum and Dad

Why they left me without goodbye
there was a green garden, a Ferris wheel, 
ice cream vans 
shadow of lovers 

Nothing left for us ... 
only the stench of death 

Santa - how you can find the smile of childhood 
that has been buried underground 
without shrouds 
without a funeral 
without a farewell.

Please Santa take back your precious gifts and give me back only my home and peace.

Dear Santa, 
sorry that your children are now not here any more 

Sorry Santa 
your children have become men in wartime  
and their toys are guns and their ecstasy is the smell of gunpowder. 

About the author

Malka Al-Haddad is an Iraqi academic who has lived in Britain since 2012. She is a member of the Union of Iraqi Writers, Director of the Women's Centre for Arts and Culture in Iraq, and an activist with Leicester City of Sanctuary.