Archive for Books

On rejection, and trying again.

This weekend I read an article about Donal Ryan, a widely-known author who had received 47 rejections for his novels, and I was soon prompted to share some stories of my own. Rejection is part of every artist’s life – in some cases, including my own, it is the norm. My first book, A Cultured Left Foot, was turned down by every publisher but one, and the person who accepted it didn’t even like football – he just liked the way that it was written. He retired just months later, and if he had not taken a chance on me then I might still be unpublished now.

 

Footballers who never quite made it in the professional game will often talk about “having had trials at Arsenal”, as if they were only a successful training session away from making it – for which they are generally mocked. Yet if you are an aspiring writer, you are, in some sense, on trial at Arsenal all the time. There are so many talented authors out there that success – that is to say, being published, let alone selling well – is frequently the most distant of dreams.

 

Why does this feel so poignant now, of all times? Well, for a couple of reasons. The first is that, quite by chance, I was looking back over some old emails and found all the messages I had sent out to promote my music. Dozens and dozens of them, only two of which were answered. If I cast my mind back carefully enough, I can even remember the optimism with which I dispatched them. I am amazed that I found the self-belief, to keep trying again in the face of such indifference.

 

The second reason is that, once again, I am about to start sending out some of my own writing to a fresh round of agents and publishers, and am currently summoning up the courage to do so. This time, I have written some fiction; a novel set in the near future in which a young black woman takes the lead, because I think that though young black women so often take the lead both socially and politically, they do not have nearly enough stories published about them. It is a very strange thing, having written a novel. You live with it for months, discussing its existence with almost no-one, and then when the time comes to offer it out into the world there is not a wild desire to share it but instead the sensation that you are about to step out stark naked in full view of the morning traffic.

 

I have written fiction for several years, and right now I am looking at one of my more recent efforts with some regret. About two years ago, I started to write Make Us Human, a novel about race and immigration in the UK, and didn’t finish it, for the reasons set out here. Given the current political climate, it might well have been an ideal novel to be pitching to agents now – and, to make me sigh a little more, the response to the first few chapters of that novel (which I posted online, also here) was both immediate and excellent. I had people I barely knew contacting me to tell me how much they wished I would finish it. I try not to look back too much over my work, but I do think that I paid the price for failing to persist with that story. As any writer knows, it is hard to pick up the thread and the energy of a narrative once it has been left alone for too long.

 

And where does this leave me now? Well, I think that I will have to continue posting out the novel that I wrote shortly after abandoning my attempt at Make Us Human. And I think that, to honour Make Us Human, I will have to keep posting it out until all options are exhausted, despite the many rejections that will inevitably come. I will do that because the most tragic thing as an artist is not failure; it is the refusal to try.

“Magic realism is just freakin’ fun” – my conversation with novelist Leone Ross

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Leone Ross, the acclaimed novelist, short story writer, editor and lecturer in fiction, has a very busy few months ahead of her. She has just had two short stories published – The Woman Who Lived in A Restaurant, by Nightjar Press, and The Mullerian Eminence, in Closure: Black British Contemporary Writing. She has also contributed an essay, How To Write Weird Shit/Magic Realism, to The Art of the Novel (Salt Publishing), and has just completed her third novel, One Sky Day, following the success of All The Blood Is Red (1997, nominated for the Orange Prize) and Orange Laughter (1999).

I spoke with Leone about her new story for Nightjar Press, where she beautifully brings together magic realism and erotic fiction. It’s the tale of an unusual love triangle, where a woman falls for a man so deeply that she vows never to leave the restaurant where he works; and, where over time, the restaurant falls for both of them too. It’s a superb story of passion, magic and food, the execution of which is beyond most writers. Below is an edited version of our conversation, where we discussed prose style, politics, Leone’s career to date and her plans for the future.

When I first got this story, I read it as a piece of erotic fiction; but what’s very interesting with this work is that it’s very restrained.

In this case, yes.

Looking at the technique of writing erotic fiction, what are the challenges in this artform?

Well, I suppose I can start off with a little anecdote. What occurs to me is that there is a small story around this story. I was asked to write just a small piece of erotica for a collection – this is years ago now. So I wrote this. And I was told by the editor at the time that it wasn’t explicit enough. So he wanted more sex in it, and he wanted more explicit sex. And the problem is that stories do tell you what kind of stories they need to be. And it occurred to me that putting one more ounce of sexuality into this story would have been exactly the wrong thing for it. So I then had to hurry and write another story. Essentially, the editor was saying, “just have two people fuck and put it on a piece of paper, please”. In his defence, we understood each other, and I had written for him before. He certainly wasn’t suggesting that that’s the way you write erotica. So for a while I thought “this is not a piece of erotica at all”, and I just thought of it as essentially a very painful love story.

What’s interesting to me is that of the women who have read this, every single one thinks that it is absolutely sexy and totally horny. Then I was like, “oh, so this is erotica”. And I was reminded again that erotica does not need to be explicit. And, of course, what is erotic and what we find sexy and will respond to viscerally in that way is entirely subjective.

What I loved about it was that there was so much build.  There was so much narrative and so much context, so when you had a sex scene it was the culmination – it didn’t feel bolted on. It didn’t come a moment too early in this story, and the characters were so fully realised by the time the sex happened that the sex wasn’t a way to explain the characters. Sometimes you get these stories where the sex is the part of the exposition. But I don’t feel that in this story.

I suppose I tend to do that. I realised this recently as well. Erotica, as you know, is not primarily what I do; but I suppose, when I do do it, I feel like it’s a slow build. Often the sexuality – be it a kiss, or full-blown sex – happens structurally towards the end of the story. That may just be because I’m a limited kind of writer, I’ve no idea; but therefore you do have that sense of building up to it, because sex is just part of the rest of it rather than the point of the story. Do you know what I mean?

Yes, absolutely. It’s almost limiting to call it an erotic story, because it’s a story about how human character is expressed through eroticism. That just happens to be the prism through which they express it.

Yes. Or, in this particular story, I am trying to express humanity through sex and other things.

Yes, there’s so much else going on.

We pay attention to sex because it’s sex. But actually I’m trying to say something about humanity through emotion, through food, through architecture. So we pay attention to the sex because it’s sex, do you see what I mean? I don’t start out saying “I’m going to write a story about this”. At some point in the creation and the drafting, I will decide what it’s about. But ultimately – and much more with short stories, I’m particularly self-conscious with novels – but with short stories, I often let them become what they are.

I won’t be coy – this is, in some ways, based on a real experience. And if I was aware of anything at all, I was aware of wanting to explore sacrifice – the erotic nature of sacrifice, and the ways [in which] people, particularly women, can do this. We can make these oddly intricate decisions about our emotional lives and not have very much fun in the process, and yet there’s a multitude of experiences even in painful things. So this woman loves this man. And also, I think she’s become used to this life, of living in this restaurant, of absence – because they don’t ever actually have sex, that’s the point, they only kiss each other, they’re not allowed to have sex. They’re not having sex in that moment in the kitchen, they’re just kissing. And they’re checking very carefully in the restaurant around them if they’ve done the right thing – because the restaurant is jealous, and won’t let them, but allows a certain amount of intimacy, because [the woman] lives there.

Right.

So they are being controlled by the restaurant. And the suggestion is also that they are being controlled by his ambitions, because he is very much in charge; but at the same time she is also in charge. Other people come and beg him to let her free, but ultimately he says “she won’t go! So what do you want me to do?”

That’s what amazes me about this story – she really gives herself over to this dynamic, and embraces it by the end. And, actually, maybe there’s something comforting in that.

There may be elements of BDSM in here as well, in that she has given over the control. Essentially a version of this happened to me – I won’t go into it, but a lot of people around me wanted to characterise me as the victim in this dynamic. But there were periods of time in which my patience for the dynamic felt empowering.

I want to talk more about you, actually. Because the story’s great, but you’ve written a lot of other work too. One thing you do is that you blend magic realism and erotic fiction –

Increasingly, yes.

And those to me are two distinct disciplines, with their own sets of rules. They require two sets of expertise. How easy, or how difficult, have you found it to blend the two?

I don’t know that I have found it easy. I think that this feels like evolution.

Right.

So it feels like an intellectual and creative evolution. My first novel was extremely realistic: it was was about three women living in London, and one of them gets raped, and the fallout of that. It was an answer to Mike Tyson, who had raped Desiree Washington. And my second novel, Orange Laughter, had elements of oddness because apart from anything else, although it talked about the Civil Rights movement, it talks about memory and it involves a ghost. So I was getting there.

Not having published a novel for many, many years now – for complicated reasons – in the meantime I was publishing relatively consistent amounts of short fiction. So that’s where I began the journey. I began to ask myself serious questions about what pleased me on the page the most. I began to feel less like I was doing my political duty.

That’s interesting. I think it was Junot Diaz who said, in an interview that I read quite recently, about writers of colour feeling deep down that they would have to be the voice of a community.

Totally.

As a football writer, I think I’ve been lucky. Because I write about football, I never had that challenge of being “the black football writer”. It was just down to writing about the analytics of football. It was almost like football was a bit of a meritocracy in that sense. So I escaped having to fly the flag for black people, if you will.

I know what you mean, and I know what Diaz means. Because at twenty-odd years old – what age was I when I published my first novel, twenty-four or twenty-five – I felt like I should, like I had to, and I also wanted to [write about political issues]. I thought, “this is a tremendous responsibility, and also a kind of power. My family is politicised, my community is politicised, and it needs me”. And I was also working at The Voice newspaper; so there were all these ideas around what I should do. But I also wanted to, and I still want to. I’m not saying that I’m not a political animal. But I’ll tell you something. You write about politics a thousand times better than I ever did, even as a journalist. And I make this point importantly, not just to praise you. It is in watching a younger generation speak of politics, and find impassioned, beautiful language for politics, that has made me in the last ten years realise: “that’s not my inclination. I don’t do that very well”. I become so enraged that I can’t express myself effectively in that way. So actually, increasingly, I want to look at the human condition – and social justice, of course, because the patriarchy is always going to pop up.

Yes, of course.

But I realise that what I’m good at, what I’m getting better at, is combining this sense of oddness, which is magic realism, with – and I think this is still political, even [now] – for a woman writer to write of sex.

When you talk about politics, I find that interesting, because – to me – the human condition is inherently political.

Quite, I agree.

And in my non-fiction I love writing about politics, but in my fiction I think I reject politics explicitly, because I think that those novels are too didactic. So, for example, I was working on a novel a year and a half ago, and I got thirteen thousand words into it, and I stopped writing it; and it’s one of the best decisions I ever made.

Why?

Because it was a novel about immigration.

But I would love a novel by you about immigration.

But here’s the problem I had with it. It was not a novel that I consciously felt I had to write, but subconsciously I felt I had to write it – I didn’t realise that at the time. I realised that because I went away for a month, and when I came back here’s the thing – the characters had not been talking to each other in my absence.

Yes.

That realisation to me was so powerful. And when I read your work – The Mullerian Eminence, or anything else – the characters are so alive. What I think is so powerful about your writing is that the author is completely absent.

Really?

Yes. You combine these two ethereal forms – magic realism and erotic fiction – and, as a result, whenever I read your work I find it completely immersive. There are many strengths to your work, but to me this is the abiding one – that it transports the reader.

Well, I’ll take that! And yet it is still political. I suppose I can’t get away from a sense of what is to be addressed and spoken of in the world; what is to be uncovered and explored in the world. And it still remains ironic that [even now], many young women are called upon to be more sexual than they ever have been, and yet are not free.

I still have never done a reading of erotic fiction that has not involved some fool man – and they are young, admittedly – coming to me at the end of the reading and saying “Hi! How are you doing?” And I’m thinking, yeah, you know I didn’t write erotica for you to come and chat me up afterwards?

I’m writing magic realism for a simple reason. It’s this: it’s fun. I was the kid who loved Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, who always loved weird crap, and so it took time for me to give myself permission to write weird crap. It took [reading] Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez at university for me to think, ‘oh my God, the adult version of weird crap, that’s so cool!’.

Magic realism is just freakin’ fun.  I feel like me when I am writing magic realism. The idea that I should walk into a room, and make a cup of coffee, and the cat should just conversationally turn itself inside out – it amuses me. It appeals to my sense of mischief, and I love that, and I feel like a kid when I do it. The reason I write erotica is because I live in a world where people still have a problem when a woman uses the word “fuck”.

You’ve just finished writing a new novel, One Sky Day – I’m intrigued by that. Can you give us a taste of what it’s about, and what inspired it?

There is a very particular story that goes with this novel. The first thing to say is that I have no publisher for it. I have a couple of people sniffing around, but I have no publisher. So it’s probably important to say that, because I want a publisher, please! So, it’s been a long time coming – and yes, you’re right, it’s a culmination of trying to work out what my style is. But also, it’s the culmination of many years of being blocked. So I’ve probably been writing it for the best part of ten years. I couldn’t write for a long time. I couldn’t write because I thought, in the way that young writers do who know nothing, I thought that Orange Laughter – which was published at the very end of 1999 – was going to make me rich and famous. And of course I did, because I was still in my late twenties, and had that kind of ignorance.

But you also had a track record. You were in the ascendancy.

Well, yes, and I hoped this would be the one that hit. And don’t get me wrong, Orange Laughter did very well. Things all looked good. At one stage, it was even in Oprah Winfrey’s hands. And I think I felt like I had worked very hard – and I worry that this sounds very entitled –

No, it doesn’t. Being a writer, being an artist, is often all about momentum.

Right. I felt I had momentum. But it certainly didn’t give me any kind of great financial remuneration, and things began to die off a little bit; and, in one way, I became frightened, that maybe I was not very good. And Orange Laughter took up a lot of emotional space – it remains a very intense novel – and I became immersed in it myself. And one of its characters kept talking to me. He wouldn’t stop talking to me. In the end, Xavier, the protagonist of my latest novel, came from me asking myself how he differed from this [particular] character in Orange Laughter.

Before you go, please tell me some more about One Sky Day, and about Xavier.

Xavier is a thirty-nine year old masterchef, living on an island called Popisho. “Poppy Show” is a Jamaican expression – it means “to be foolish”. So if I’m making a poppy show out of you, I’m making a fool of you. So that’s a kind of in-joke for the Jamaicans. Xavier’s wife wife died a year ago, and he is still depressed about her death; and he has basically been forced by the governor of the island to do a very particular thing. The governor’s daughter is about to be married, and he’s running for election again, and he’s decided to have this day of feasting and rejoicing during his daughter’s nuptials. And he wants Xavier to help him and join in with this poppy show, with this foolishness. It’s almost like when the royals got married recently, and there was a holiday; what made me laugh about that is that it is the spirit of my novel, that idea of distracting the masses while Rome burns. So that’s what’s happening; this governor has called my main character to help him and to distract people from the fact that they don’t have running water, and that there’s a huge amount of money being siphoned off from the country. Basically, he’s corrupt.

And Xavier hates that he’s corrupt, and he’s pretty pissed to have been pressed into this thing, but he’s busy being depressed in his house, and being addicted to moths. In this society, moths are like heroin.

What’s he doing with the moths?

He’s eating them. So the book covers one day in his life, in which he has been forced to leave the safety of his home – he’s become practically agoraphobic in his grief – and cross the country, looking for items for the wedding feast. He’s been asked by the governor to cook the most romantic meal in the world for these nuptials, so he’s forced to be part of this farce. But really it’s also a day’s journey in which he wakes up, he realises what’s important, he fights the moth addiction. He has a moth in his pocket for the entire day – someone’s given him a quality moth and he’s trying not to eat it for the whole day.

Sounds terrific. This sounds like something Guillermo Del Toro would direct.

Hahaha!

It sounds so visual.

I suppose our generation of writers writes in a very visual way. And he’s living in an island where strange things happen; where everybody has magical powers. They’re almost bored with this crap. You’re born with very long legs, or the speed of a cheetah, or whatever. And people get irritated with it – it can cause all kinds of problems in your life. And what you do for your profession is associated with your magic as well. So, when you’re born, the midwives look for the magic; if you’ve got speed, then you’ll end up as a messenger boy. And his magical power is that he can season things with his hands. So he doesn’t need pepper and he doesn’t need salt or spices, he can just touch the meat and it’s done.

The only other element to it is that it is a love story. You know that principle of “the one that got away”?

Haha, we all know that.

There is a woman who he loved a long time ago, who was engaged to be married when they met, so she was unavailable. And she is also crossing this same island at the same time as him. So it really is the story of two people crossing the island, who both love each other still.

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If you would like to buy Leone’s short story, “The Woman Who Lived In a Restaurant”, you can do so here. If you would like to know more about her work and her upcoming readings, you can visit her website, her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter. Another excellent short story of hers, “The Mullerian Eminence”, has recently been published in this anthology.

My debut poetry collection, “Eating Roses For Dinner”

Musa on the stairs (6)

UPDATE: you can now purchase my collection by clicking this link, for anyone using Google in order to find the book. Thank you very much for your kind support of my work.

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So, as some of you already know: I am self-publishing my debut poetry collection this summer, “Eating Roses For Dinner”, to mark my first 10 years as a poet. The cover of the book is the photo above, taken by Naomi Woddis; and the book features a foreword from Scroobius Pip, and other very kind words from artists whose work I greatly respect. It will be just under 150 pages in length.

I am charging £10 per copy, plus postage to wherever you may live; I will also sign the book with whatever dedication you would like me to include.

I am printing a very short run of books now, just to gauge initial interest, and if that goes well then I will print some more in time for Christmas. (Please share this post with anyone who might find it of interest – I have included some recommendations below from other artists, for those who do not know my work.) Thanks very much for reading everyone, and have a fantastic day.

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About my poetry:

Ed Sheeran, musician:

“I’ve known Musa for many years and I’ve always found him a very honest, poignant wordsmith. He writes from the heart with no filter, and that’s what the best lyricists do. I’m a fan.”

Kate Tempest, poet, playwright and musician:

“Musa is precise and all-encompassing in the same line. His poetry is intimate and erudite, passionate and beautiful.”

Cerys Matthews, musician and broadcaster:

“From the first time I heard Musa’s work, at a launch event in Old Street, I found it to be lyrical, heartfelt and compelling, and I have enjoyed collaborating with him since then. His work is warm, engaging and reflective, and I hope you enjoy this collection.”

Nikesh Shukla, author and playwright:

“Musa Okwonga’s work is often about space – distance travelled, loneliness, the terse relationships between people, cities, digital lives impacting our analogue sense of being in the moment, actual outer space – and it’s these landscapes that give his poetry the gravitas of someone who plays the part of social commentator in the trenches as well as alien observing our peculiarities from afar. I never fail to be moved, astonished, surprised and humoured by his warmth and deep understanding of what it means to be human, and what it means to be other.”

Steven Camden (“Polarbear”), writer, spoken word artist and playwright:

“Musa dances between worlds and circles that many others can only stumble into. He writes importance and compassion and homage and love. I think of him as a disciple of beauty, in all its forms.”

Why writing is like dating.

Writing, in one sense, is like dating. What I mean is this: with each failed attempt, it gets a little harder to try again next time. I’m in the early stages of working on a new project, and, just like each time I start a new relationship, I am in that familiar haze of fear and excitement. Just as when you meet someone new, the excitement comes first. The ideas come tumbling out of you; everything is fresh, original, the sentences emerge onto the page with a promising fluidity. And then, and then: then comes the fear. The doubt. The wonder as to whether it’s any good. And then come the memories of all the other projects that didn’t work out, strewn forlornly throughout your creative past like lost loves. There have been so many.

Some might say: “but what do you define by ‘working out’, though? Surely even a relationship that ended after a couple of years was a success in some form”. Well, in response to that, I would have to say no, not really. As joyful as an attempt at a long-term relationship may have been at various points, it ultimately didn’t give you the result that you wanted. And the same is true for art, with me in any case. Whenever I begin a long piece of work, I do so with the hope that it will resonate with a great many people; that this resonance will lead me to a far better quality of life. Some might say that this is the wrong way to assess the quality of one’s creative output, that if you touch just one person then your art has been a success, but I learned a long time ago that the applause of a solitary human being does not pay the rent.

So where are things now? Ah, yes; with the fear, my old friend. Here we are again: and here I am at this screen, with this new work, as afraid of the first page as I am of a first date. Not knowing how long it will take; not knowing who it will touch, who will care. But here goes, I will start again: because, just like lovers, that’s what writers do, and always will.

“Zooming In, Zooming Out”: a conversation with Shannon Hardwick, poet

humming

Shannon Hardwick is a fantastic poet whose acquaintance I was lucky to make several years ago. Hailing from Texas, drawing her influences from science, music and a keen study of the world around her, her work exudes a rare grace and optimism. On the eve of the publication by Mouthfeel Press of Hummingbird Mind, her second chapbook, I caught up with her for a conversation about poetry, the prairie, Tchaikovsky and more.

Shannon, how have your experiences influenced you as a writer?

I grew up in an interesting household. My parents were not happily married. I grew up with four siblings…but I was the second oldest, so even though I grew up in a big family I always felt like kind of a loner. I rode horses, and so I spent most of my time away from the home and at the barn.
I remember this one memory when my parents had just separated and my mom was busy, she couldn’t take me to the barn. And I felt trapped in my home, so I called my father, which was kind of a desperate measure because I didn’t usually call him; and I asked him if he could take me to the barn. And he couldn’t do that, and he said, ‘why can’t your mom take you? Why do you have to go at this hour?’ I think it was probably eight o’clock in the evening. And I just said, ‘I want to see my best friend.’ ”
So horses were a really big deal to me – I spent a long time with her, not around other people – and so writing was a way of communicating my thoughts and feelings at a time that was very confusing. Every major event of my life I remember always running to pen and paper, to figure out how I was feeling. A lot of times I wrote to God. Maybe I felt like that was my friend in the sky as a child.

You still write to the sky, don’t you, if that makes sense?

Yeah, I know, to the bigger picture, the bigger thing out there, the Universe…yes, I still very much write to that.

I’ve been reading your work for a few years now, and each time you manage to marry imagery and narrative better and better . What I really liked about Manaquest [Shannon’s first chapbook] is that you sank completely into a different world. It reminded me of the old Coyote stories, the Tricksters and so on. I’ve always seen a bit of the prairie or the wilderness in your work, if that’s fair.

That makes sense. As I’ve gotten older, people point that out to me a lot. I grew up in West Texas in the middle of nowhere, where we were five hours from the biggest town. So it’s just plains and prairies and tumbleweeds and cows. Flatland. So yes, I think that influences my work a lot.

It’s funny reading work influenced by the geography; you read work by, say, Cormac McCarthy, and the prose feels very windswept. And reading your stuff as well, you can sense the geography which it has inspired. That’s a great strength of yours. There’s a lot of space in your work; there’s a lot of air, even in the way you use the punctuation. The words definitely breathe. Without that the imagery would be quite dense and, I think, overwhelming…But despite that space, there’s also a sense of optimism. Do you think that’s a fair comment?

Yes, I think that’s fair…I think that might come from some sort of spirituality in my work. Maybe, I don’t know. [Laughs]

The Hummingbird Mind – why the title?

I wrote most of [those poems] when I was a student at Sarah Lawrence College [a liberal arts college in New York]. Some of those I wrote when I visited home in Texas, but I think I was a little overwhelmed in New York and it was definitely a new landscape.

Maybe it was the disconnect of living in New York, I’m not sure, but one day I was at the library at Sarah Lawrence and I was researching schizophrenia, thought disorders, and I came across this woman’s blog. And she mentioned this disconnection of thought, and she called it ‘Hummingbird Mind’. And I loved that. So that’s how I came up with the title: of thoughts jumping from here to there.

It’s a beautiful image. And it’s funny because although it seems a particularly singular condition, I think it’s actually one that we’re living in now. In this era of urbanisation, a lot of us have ‘hummingbird minds’. Even looking out the window, we’re all dashing about. And there’s a sense of speed for the sake of speed sometimes, and not thinking where it’s taking us.

Oh, definitely. And just today’s culture of being connected to the Internet. If you go out anywhere and look at young people, they’re not even connecting with their surroundings, they’re just looking at their phones, which in itself is a whole other world. We’re just looking at the Internet and living these weird double lives, or triple lives.

It’s very weird having to define yourself with reference to the Internet. Now, for many people, being online is almost the default option.

Right.

But your work is a real departure from the world of the Internet, which is why I like it. It’s very contemplative and reflective. There was one poem of yours I was reading, where I loved this line: “There are nights when I discover universes packed in a suitcase”. What inspired that particular image?

I do a lot of work with memory learning. With the image of a suitcase, you’re travelling physically, but also back in your mind.

I had the vision there of Men In Black, where they have universes inside marbles.

Right! [Laughs]

There was also your Tchaikovsky poem earlier, which seemed to be about having to proceed despite what was overwhelming. What did that piece mean to you?

Well, right before I moved to New York I started getting into classical music and studying composers’ lives. And what really moved me was that Tchaikovsky didn’t even start writing or composing music until he was, I think, forty? His mother had died, and he was probably unhealthily connected to his mother. And she died, and he became an alcoholic. And at one point he even threw himself down the stairs, in a suicidal attempt, and that moment [in reading about that] I felt this overwhelming sadness, that everything in your whole world was out of control. And yet out of that, as a way to maybe contain or control that emotion, he created beautiful music. And not until he was 40. And I just thought that was fascinating, and that’s where that poem came from.

It’s a beautiful piece; and there are lessons there for all of us more broadly, I think, that it is never too late to create. So much of life, as that shows, is just hanging in there; because Tchaikovsky now, even for a casual listener to classical music like me, is such a frame of reference. There’s a powerful sense of resilience.

Right.

Let’s go into other themes in your poetry, beyond that surface level of optimism. What are the key things that you think characterise, that drive your work?

Zooming in, and zooming out. Quantum mechanics; the very large, and the very small. The self, but also getting out of the self, and connecting with the Universe. How to explain this?…Well, one time I was kind of a troublemaker as a teen and I got sent away to this programme – I think in the UK they had a show about it, it’s called ‘Brat Camp’? [laughs]

Yes, hahaha!

I went to that same Brat Camp – I think, the one in Utah – and I was out there and every night before we went to bed I would lay down on my sleeping bag, and basically you would see shooting stars, you would see thousands of them before you went to sleep. And I got this feeling of feeling so connected to something so large, yet at the same time feeling so small. So at once feeling insignificant, and at the same time feeling connected to all that is significant. And I like to explore our feeling of disconnect – of feeling small and insignificant and yet feeling connected to everything and everyone, of that largeness and that smallness.

You can pre-order a copy of Hummingbird Mind for $8.00 here. You can read more of Shannon’s poetry and thoughts on her blog, which you can find by clicking on this link.