Monday, 20 March 2017

Cathedral Stories, by Hannah Stevens

On Friday 3rd March Leicester Cathedral became a gateway to an alternate universe, a place where hidden treasure was discovered, where angels fell to earth, where wooden carvings began to talk.

As part of the BBC Storytelling Festival over 100 children from local schools joined lecturers, tutors and writers from the University of Leicester’s School of Arts for a Flash Fiction workshop. Using objects and artefacts all around the cathedral as inspiration, the young people wrote their own flash fiction (or very short stories) and shared their work to applause from the rest of the crowd.

Here is a story inspired by the Ypres Cross in the Cathedral:

The Ypres Cross

I visit the cathedral every week. I come to see the Ypres cross, to touch the glass that covers it, keeps it safe.

The broken beads wound around the crucifix remind me of the beads my grandmother used to wear.  She wore them for special occasions: for nights she wanted to feel beautiful. She looped the string around her throat and they looked pale against the dark blue of her blouse.

Next she added colour to her cheeks, lipstick to her mouth. She knew her own face well and did this with precision. Later, she slipped a shawl over her shoulders, stepped out to dance with her friends.

My grandmother doesn’t wear her beads anymore. She cannot walk, doesn’t have the strength to lift her legs. She spends her days in bed now, dying slowly from something they cannot cure.

Sometimes she asks me to put powder across her cheeks, to fetch a mirror so she can see. She tells me how she loves to dance and she asks me for her beads.

When I tell her that the beads are broken, that she cannot dance tonight, she begins to cry.

I wipe her tears with my hand, say I love her, but she looks confused. My grandmother doesn’t know who I am. She doesn’t remember me. But she remembers her beads. How they felt cool on her neck and how they moved against the dark blue of her blouse as she danced.

Hannah Stevens

Thursday, 16 March 2017

A Masterclass from Bali Rai, by Rosalind Adam

The MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester joined together with Literary Leicester today to bring us an inspiring masterclass presented by Bali Rai.

Bali Rai was born in Leicester. He grew up in a multi-cultural, multiracial community, an experience that has had a definite influence on his writing. His first book was the best selling (Un)Arranged Marriage and he went on to become one of the UK's most successful YA authors. Today we were given a glimpse into his writing world, a chance to see how he has become so successful in his craft.

Bali Rai's enthusiasm was infectious.

"All humans are nosey parkers," he told us. We must make sure that our audience wants to know more. We must elicit in them first sympathy and then empathy for our characters. Throughout the afternoon he kept bringing us back to this point, to considering who our audience is when we are writing. How we can connect with the audience became his mantra.

He stressed how important it is to analyse each section, each paragraph. Every sentence needs to be there for a reason. If it doesn't have a reason then get rid of it and make sure all the content will connect with the audience. 

How well do we know our characters? He asks his characters questions about their habits, desires, emotions. Only when he knows the characters really well can he portray them in a three-dimensional way. Only then will they connect with the audience.

He dropped in many pieces of advice as he spoke, sharing lessons that he had learnt from experience. The beginning of a novel is the hardest and most important to get right. Character is more important than setting. If you find yourself staring at a blank screen then turn it off and take a break. And yes, as a writer he believes in ghosts. Why be rational? You're a creative writer! 

"Everything comes back to connection with the audience," he reminded us and he practiced what he preached. For this afternoon we were his audience and he certainly connected with us. We were with him all the way.

By Rosalind Adam, first published here. 

Monday, 13 March 2017

With the Refugees: Leicester Refugees Meet MA Creative Writers

By Alexandros Plasatis

They were having their free meal at City of Sanctuary as they always do on Wednesdays. I was going from table to table to remind them about our creative writing workshop. Some were playing ping-pong, one was having a head massage, they were chatting, asking where they can go to learn English, in one corner others were picking up donated clothes and cans of beans or just staring. There were about eighty people there, in the refugee centre, and I was asked to go along to the workshop with ten. Up at the University of Leicester, MA students were waiting for us.

‘You coming for the writing workshop today, Mohammed?’

‘What writing, my teacher?’

‘At the uni, my good child…’

‘Ah, at the uni… My teacher, you look like Mr Bean.’

‘I know. After the workshop we’re going for a meal out in a real restaurant.’

‘OK, I coming.’

I moved to the next table, explained what the workshop was about. ‘…and then after the restaurant we are going to see teacher Jess. She runs a poetry thing called “Find the Right Words.”’ I moved to another table, explained, told them that it was going to be a long but fun day out, and they took the piss because I got too stressed, and we laughed. And with Maggie, a tireless volunteer at City of Sanctuary, we gathered fifteen refugees and asylum seekers, and started to make our way up New Walk. On the way to the uni, three guys were telling me how they made their way from their far away countries to the UK. 

 ‘I came in the back of a lorry, in the fridge.’

 ‘What cargo was in the fridge?’


 ‘My lorry was a chocolate fridge.’

 ‘Ah now that’s nice … How many of you were in the fridge?’

 ‘Twenty-five. Sometimes we had to stay inside for a whole day.’

 ‘Sorry to ask this, but I always wondered, when you wanted to go to the toilet, what did you do?’

 ‘We had a Coca-Cola bottle. We passed it around.’ 

 ‘And if you wanted to do the other thing?’

 ‘You don’t do the other thing.’

 ‘My lorry wasn’t a fridge. It was open. It carried logs.’

 We reached the university building, Maurice Shock. Corinne Fowler was there, she welcomed us and we made it to the classroom. Ten MA students were ready to deliver a creative writing workshop to the refugees. Sonia and Kassie had already come down to the City of Sanctuary once to get a feeling of the place and meet the refugees. Azra and Lauren had emailed me to ask what type of exercises they should be doing. And I work in the same building with Will. He works in the café and sometimes brings me the leftover sausage rolls:

 ‘Here, Alex, take these six sausage rolls and tell me, we’re thinking of doing this and this and this and this exercise with the refugees. What do you think?’ 

 ‘Oh man that’s very kind of you.’

 ‘You like them?’

 ‘They are lovely. Well, now this exercise sound good… yiam yiam yiam ah oh ah…’

Now, enough with that waffling on. I was asked by Jonathan Taylor to write a piece about my experience of the writing workshop delivered by his MA students. All right, Jonathan, I’ll tell you what I remember. I remember that your students were kind to the refugees; I remember how worried they were to make the refugees feel welcome. They were thoughtful – did you know they brought their own biscuits and crisps and drinks for the refugees? I saw tiredness in their faces, it was the good, sweet type of tiredness, it’s the tiredness that I see in people when they worry and care. Those who led the workshop worried about what the refugees would think of them, they saw them as they really are, equals, humans who, like you and me, can judge. The rest of your students who sat by the refugees helped and cared, they tried to explain what this and that exercise was about, and when the refugees with their poor English didn’t understand, your students didn’t give up, they tried again. And the refugees enjoyed it, they told me so later, they said, ‘We really liked it, Mr Bean, are we going there again?’ 

Job done, back to waffling now. The workshop finished and we left. We had some time to kill until the restaurant. We went to the university library, I showed them around, they found the big old books, they opened them, turned their pages carefully. We had more time to kill. It was raining heavily outside and we went to the library café. Maggie bought us coffee and tea, then we went to see Corinne again, in the Charles Wilson building. She had invited us to her salsa dance class. We danced, even I danced, but we had to go again, and the rain still came down hard. We took the bus to town, another bus to Narborough Road, had our dinner in a Turkish restaurant. We talked and ate, took photos and laughed, and the person who sat next to me, an Afghan bloke, said that this was the best meal he had for years:

‘Thank you, Alex. I feel like I’m with my family.’

‘Don’t thank me, I’m not paying for this.’

‘Who’s paying?’

‘No-one is paying. Get ready to grab your coat. We’re doing a runner.’

‘A runner?’

‘Can you help, Fatima?’

 ‘Which one is Fatima?’

 ‘The pregnant one. I’ll carry Aisha’s baby.’

 ‘No problem.’

 ‘No, actually, I'm joking, it’s Writing East Midlands that pays.’

 ‘Who are they?’

‘They are Aimee and Henderson and Heather and some other people that I don’t know.’

‘Tell them I thank them.’

Did you hear, Aimee, Henderson and Heather and some other people that I don’t know? That Afghan bloke wants to thank you.

We left again, went to the Western Pub, Upstairs at the Western, we saw Jess Green. She was the Lead Writer on the writing project with the refugees and asylum seekers, Write Here: Sanctuary. The place was packed, many people read their stuff, and so did two of our people, two refugees, after crossing country after country hiding for months inside lorries, they stood up there, in a small pub in Leicester, they stood up to read their poetry.

In the links below, you can read some poems and an article by Malka, an asylum seeker from Iraq.

Letter to Santa

I’m Human

Letter to Trump

Everybody’s Reading article

About the writer
Alexandros Plasatis is an ethnographer who writes fiction in English, his second language. In 2014 he was awarded a PhD in Creative Writing. His stories have or are due to appear in Overheard: Stories to Read Aloud, Unthology, Crystal Voices, blÆkk and Total Cant, and his academic article on how to undertake ethnography and turn it into fiction will be published in the next volume of Short Fiction in Theory and Practice. He lives in Leicester and is a volunteer at City of Sanctuary, where he aims to find and develop new creative writing talent within the refugee and asylum seeker community.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Suzi Shimwell - Featured Poem

Last week, poet Suzi Shimwell gave a wonderful guest talk and reading for first-year Creative Writing students and the public. It was one of a programme of a guest talks by writers, publishers and professionals we run throughout the year.

About Suzi
Suzi Shimwell is a free verse poet who divides her time between Leicester and Cambridge juggling a Ph.D and a career in teaching. In her free time she runs the Cambridge Free Inkers writing group and edits The New Luciad. Her poems have appeared in Agenda Broadsheet, From The Lighthouse, The New Luciad and Cake.

Below is one of the poems she read during the guest lecture.

A poem only about toothbrushes

“I can’t put toothbrushes in a poem, I really can’t!”
Sylvia Plath, Interview 30th October 1962

In this poem there will be only toothbrushes.
There is just one in the glass,
moulded in hard blue plastic with two thousand
tough nylon bristles;

there is another in the bin
under the sink.
It’s pink. 

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Geraldine Bell - Featured Poem

As part of our annual programme of guest speakers for Creative Writing, the poet Geraldine Bell gave an excellent talk this week, for first-year creative writers, other students and the public. She talked in detail about her experience of critical and reflective writing in relation to her own poetry. Geraldine is in her final year of a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester, and her poems have previously been published in Ambit, Dream Catcher and Brittle Star magazines. Here is one of her poems:

Pink Papers

These punishing pink paper notes
Are always telling me what’s to-do.
Their dog-eared corners growl and snarl
And aggressively pull at my shoe.

To slice one errand off the list;
Thou art the best o’ the cut throats.
But three more Fleances take its place
As heirs in black, on paper notes.

These punishing pink paper notes
Are always telling me what to do
With a righteous sense of duty;
And worst, in my own writing too.

Geraldine Bell

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.