My stop on The Writing Process Blog Tour

Firstly, thank you to the wonderfully incisive, insightful, humane creator of multilayered poetry, Ivy Alvarez, for asking me if I wanted to take part in The Writing Process Blog Tour. You can see her blog for the Tour here. I had the honour of reviewing Disturbance (Ivy’s most recent book of verse) for New Welsh Review, and you can see my thoughts here.

Secondly, you can see the Tour blog by novelist and short story writer, Carol Burns (who invited Ivy to contribute) here.

Thirdly, next Monday, April 28th, you will be able to see what the lovely and inspiring poet, educator and literary event event organiser, Christina Thatcher has to say about her writing process and more here. See after my blog for her bio 🙂

Fourthly, my answers to the four questions you will find answered at each stop on the tour…
1) What am I working on?

—Prepping for Oxslam 2014, May 1st, the fourth annual poetry slam between Cardiff and Swansea, facing off in a good cause. I will be the Cardiff Team Captain. Facebook event Page here.

—Simultaneously prepping for the Dylan Thomas Festival in Laugharne the following evening when I will be among other (mainly Cardiff based) performers at the Dylan Thomas Festival in Laugharne as part of the Back of the Pub Poetry Club.

—Working on a parody performance piece The Priestly Boys, (w)rapping up Catholicism in a Beastie Boys flavoured package for an open mic event I will probably also be the guest host for around mid-May (will blog nearer the time).

—Working on promoting my booklet of my story in verse and prose Human Beings (Dickensian Twist) launched at the monthly Cardiff Rhyme and Real Ale poetry event last Monday night (see my website for artwork, Next up booklet-wise is likely to be one of my other longer form verse/story pieces, Cupid’s Evil Twin.
—Working on collecting together the comedic and more serious aspects of my performance verse and longer story verse pieces for submission to a publisher actually inviting such things.

—Going on then coming off the back burner as time allows, a collection of short stories provisionally titled The In and Out of Control Freaks of Fordham City. A series of individual stories, all set in Fordham City, in part a parody of the idea that everybody in a city has their own story while they can be blissfully unaware of the stories of others. The characters are mainly linked by wishing to be more in control of their own situation, but facing something that conflicts with that. The theme of hunger (literal/emotional/metaphorical) features regularly as does the idea of the Alpha Male (eviscerated/parodied/exposed as illusory and temporary). The power struggles of sex mad ducks; the sexual politics of one night stands; addiction as a psychological duel between the addict and his Helldog; a mysterious condition called Somnia; a man answers his front door to a woman who throws a kitten at him then scarpers; an Infernal direct sales letter; Jesus escaping from an asylum; many more oddities offer a kaleidoscopic approach to the recurring themes writ small, large, and every other size things may be writ. The name of the city came from The Dudemen, my knowing, but affectionate parody of the comic book genre, with Fordham City being my proxy for other cities like Gotham. And once I had that setting, Fordham ‘adopted’ my other tales and became a city where literally anything might happen.

2)How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I don’t consider myself to be following a particular genre. If I do anything at all as a ‘motif’ it is to cast the ordinary frustrations of life into as realistic or fantastical a setting as best suits a particular piece. My writing has been described as semi-noir or B-Movie style, casting a quizzical eye at the quotidian, like a moving version of a painting by Edward Hopper. But that is just one approach I use, and rather than seeking to fit into a genre I seek to ask a reader to trust me to have a reason for the choice of genre or setting and the comedic or otherwise tone I have struck with any particular piece. Which in marketing terms no doubt makes me an awkward bugger.

3)Why do I write what I do?

I wonder about things. I wonder about the world, its past, its present, its future and I wonder about human beings, the things that are expected of them, the desires they have within and how they reconcile any distance between these things. I want to make people laugh, I want to make people think and sometimes I want people to be doing these things simultaneously. I write what I write as reflection of self, upon individuals, upon society, upon how people really feel inside and the pressures to follow the flock on the outside. I wish to reflect on my own contradictions and complexities and credit other people with the intelligence to read into what I do whatever they happen to perceive. In simplistic terms, I would rather be the sudden curveballs, gut-punching blindsidings and merciful sudden comic relief of Breaking Bad than the ‘We will tell you what you should feel because we know best’ approach to drama.

I use a television reference here because even people who love to read watch films and TV. The snobby type would have it that one form of writing is inherently superior to another, but that kind of attitude keeps people small and denies them many rich experiences, in my opinion. People do want shorthand in trying to decide what to make of a writer, however, so I have just given the simplest explanation I can in the previous paragraph. To me it is all about knowing what response you are going for, nudging people towards that specific response via the best available technique, and wanting the kind of audience that is willing to pay attention to small details and reach their own conclusions as part of the fun. Whatever the form, it is all about trying to engage the imagination of other human beings. As a ‘consumer’ of the writing of others, I know what I am willing to give, I know how patient I am willing to be. I know how willing to wait for a payoff I am and I want to have that kind of relationship with anyone ‘consuming’ what I do. My writing is a formalised version of my relationship with the world. And on any given day, depending on the mood of the time, or the context of events, the way we see things changes. There is doubt. There is frustration. There is random humour. There is tragedy, but there is brilliance and hope. All human life is out there and the individual imagination is infinite. So in writing terms, whether it be dark or light, serious or silly, I write with the hope that something unexpected will happen. I write to know myself and the world better.

4)How does my writing process work?

Sometimes strict parameters can be set in advance, sometimes an idea can be followed to see where it leads, without fear, because nobody ever has to see the results unless it has led somewhere. And how can anybody ever become the unique individual wordsmith they have the capacity to be if (allowing for the pressure of deadlines and expectations of editors), they have never roamed the inside of their own head and discovered that there are no frontiers there but those they select or have imposed upon them?

For me the process is secondary to the initial spark of the idea. Something sets the process in motion and the process used should serve that something. I wrote Cupid’s Evil Twin after wondering if there was an anti-Cupid, causing all the heartbreak in the world. The words “Cupid’s Evil Twin Fires poison tipped arrows, into the hearts of the lonely, on every cold night” came quickly. I decided to write whatever came next and worry about structure later. Similarly with Dickensian Twist (the title/theme of a poetry slam), the words “It was a dark, dark night. Dark, dark things were happening…” came from somewhere at the back of my mind and I wrote what came next, than what came next, and didn’t know where it was going until it got there, then came the work of making things flow inexorably until it appeared that it was inevitably going to take the form it did (a late brief appearance in the tale of ‘The Elephant Man’ seems to indicate that was always going to be the point of my use of the words ‘Human Beings’ as a recurring phrase, but, hand on heart, this perfect little moment didn’t come until the writing process was very nearly over). Trusting in the process of writing a piece to prompt the subconscious to provide what you need can bring great dividends. You don’t always need to know precisely where you are going to get where it was always heading! I was writing for a one off poetry slam yet ended up with something people have been willing to pay for, to read in their own time. A definite process for approaching the former might never have led to the latter.

Conversely, another story/verse piece of mine arose from the thought of how it might feel to to be a First World War deserter, waiting to be shot the next day. Then, with a stricter verse structure set in advance than I normally impose on myself, I imposed an absolute time limit on the writing of the piece. I set an alarm for 7.00am, began writing at midnight and gave myself that time for my narrator to tell his story, a story of a life running out of time. And the more time ticked away, the more angry and questioning the narrator became. King and Country were condemned. God and Christ were disavowed, as the capacity for man to be cruel to his fellow man drained the narrator of all his hope. I wrote as if my life was the one being snuffed out when daybreak came and there would be no time to say anything else, ever. And the reaction to the piece when I have read it has been wonderful.

Also, shorter time limits, writing to prompts given in a class, can also draw pieces of work, practically fully formed, from the ever active subconscious that would never have occurred to a writer operating in their usual way, employing their tried and tested processes.

To sum up, the process I would use would be as formal or as experimental as seems appropriate. Sometimes the goals are completely consciously pursued, sometimes it is a wander into the woods of the mind to see what is discovered. Whatever works best for the project is best. If there was a magic formula or infallible approach, we would all already know what it is!
I look forward to exploring the thoughts of other writers on this tour, including, next Monday (April 28 2014) the ever encouraging Christina Thatcher 🙂

Christina Thatcher is an American graduate of the Creative Writing MA program at Cardiff University. While studying, she fell in love with Wales and now runs creative writing workshops for at-risk youth and community members across the valleys. Christina keeps busy in Cardiff too where she facilitates the local ‘Roath Writers’ group, hosts open mic events, and tries to keep on top of her PhD. Her poetry has recently been published in The London Magazine, Neon Literary Magazine, and the Lampeter Review, among others, and her first pamphlet is forthcoming from Stairwell Books. To learn more about Christina’s work please visit her website/blog, or follow her on Twitter @writetoempower.


Disturbance Review

REVIEW by Will Ford (Published online by New Welsh Review, print version subscription details below)

NWR Issue 102


by Ivy Alvarez


Disturbance is a precisely constructed, unflinchingly observant, heartbreaking and terrifying novel of poems, a powerfully delivered and devastating firestorm of words. It portrays the build-up to and fallout from the murderous and suicidal conclusion to family life. This family has been bruised by domestic abuse, broken by divorce and ultimately obliterated by the words ‘you can’t keep my children from me… they’re mine’.

Beginning at the inquest into these tragic central events, Ivy Alvarez presents a story told in non-chronological kaleidoscopic fragments of minute detail and raw emotion. These include an emergency services operator helplessly hearing screams and shotgun blasts down the telephone line; a grandmother thinking of buying a carpet to cover bloodstains; the mistress of the murderer suffering scapegoat-hungry media coverage; Jane, scrabbling in vain to hide from a long feared fate, and Tony, a violent control freak, blaming his victims for his actions.

Over the course of forty-four poems, the reader is taken forwards and backwards in time, each poem helping to construct the wider story and often simultaneously offering a snapshot portrait of the principal character in their own words. This results in a provocative array of stylistic approaches, including a dark appropriation of the Ladybird Readers: ‘See Jane run. Watch Dick run. Watch Dick chase Jane. Watch Dick chase / Jane through their house. Dick has a gun. Run Jane run.’

Within this ‘verse novel’, Alvarez shows admirable artistic control and a remarkable capacity for empathy. She has crafted a range of voices that, even in the briefest of appearances, reveal another facet of the wider narrative and another example of just how far the hurtful consequences of terrible acts can travel. Telling the story in verse form creates just enough distance to prevent Disturbance becoming too emotionally overwhelming to read. This method also reveals a terrible beauty within the blackest shadows of human experience.

Disturbance is a fully ‘adult’ book which may require some readers to look themselves in the eye and ask if they would have acted differently from the neighbour who didn’t want to get involved or the policemen who didn’t rush towards the sound of a shot. So authentically self-protective are some of the characters that a childlike feeling can descend on the reader seeking the need for a hero.

Among the visceral responses Disturbance provokes is a sense of helplessness. In this harsh reality, apparently definitive signs of a tragedy waiting to happen become visible only in hindsight. Wisely, then, Alvarez does not seek the moral high ground of pointing out what people should have done or said. Rather, we are offered authentically painted human responses to the kind of events most of us will be lucky enough never to be caught up in. Alvarez does not seek to suggest how to prevent these kind of horrors. As comforting as it might be to tell ourselves otherwise, such terrible acts occur because one person chooses to commit them. Tony’s choice is his alone, whatever means he uses to justifying himself:

Better to be a brute
than be far less.

So common is the real-life scenario of a divorced father saying ‘You can’t keep my children from me’ that Disturbance could be justified solely as a humane parable and warning about the dark places such a statement may lead. But the skill and imagination with which Alvarez approaches her subject matter from so many perspectives also makes the book an adventure for the mind. This is achieved without ever engendering the feeling that it is exploitative of suffering, and Alvarez leaves plenty of room for readers to bring their own imaginations into play.

Each reader will have their own individual response, just as Alvarez’ characters react individually to these terrible events. The timeless value of storytelling is that it can transport us into the lives, experiences and minds of others, and hold up a mirror to our assumptions and moral certainties. Alvarez has taken a long, courageous look into such a mirror. The reflection we see may bring us close to weeping for humanity. But not to giving up on it.


Attended the Cardiff Launch of Disturbance by Ivy Alvarez last night to hear readings and take part in the open mic with a piece I wrote yesterday (see below)

Amazon link for Ivy’s book (which I have written a review for and will blog when it is published by New Welsh Review)


My piece read at the Chapter event

The Spirit of Human Endeavour

Put Jack
Back in his box
Close the lid
And swing
The hook across
To where it meets
The loop that keeps
Jack aware of
Who’s the boss.

Smaller than
He wants to be
Crouching inside
Less cubic feet
Than he feels
That he deserves

How do they dare?
Such bloody nerve
I’ll show them all
See if I don’t
I know I will
They think I won’t
But this coiled spring
Inside of me
Wont be kept down

It strains and strains
It must extend
It will not be
Denied my “friends”
You will regret
You’ll have no choice
I’ll box your ears
With my freed voice

I’ll demand
And then I’ll take
The satisfaction
For which I ache
While you hold me
In this tin
More cramped
Than any
Wooden coffin
That men lie in

I’ll push
I’ll stand

I‘m free…

Then the giant hand
Began to descend
Pushed on Jack’s head
And yet again
The spring inside
Became compressed
Forced down and down
To fill his chest
To the extent
That breath came hard
And thoughts turned black
As his card
Was marked anew
In Fate’s favour

You tasted free air
But did not savour
That which is not
Yours to have
Nice try
But no cigar
Mon Brave

I put you back
In your box
Closed the lid
And swung the hook across
To where it meets the loop
That keeps you aware
I am the boss

So you can take your tuppenny Rice
And you can eat your treacle
That’s the only food you’ll ever get
You little weasel

In the dark Jack
Simmered and seethed
Smaller than
He wants to be
Crouching inside
Less cubic feet
Than he feels
That he deserves

How do they dare?
Such bloody nerve
I’ll show them all
See if I don’t
I know I will
They think I won’t
But this coiled spring
Inside of me
Will not be kept down