On our most recent WW1 Writers’ Trip to the Somme, I tried to deal with the overwhelming grief of seeing gravestone after gravestone by concentrating on the individual scripts written on each headstone. It was heartbreaking how much personality can come across just from a few words, and how much thought must have gone into exactly how families wanted their loved ones to be remembered. Here are some:






















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Snapshots from the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival

Given that I’ve finally managed to immerse myself into writing my fourth novel, it could have been a strange time to experience my first ever Aldeburgh Poetry Festival. But so many people have raved about it over the years and as I value every minute I can spend with my host, Pamela Johnson and fellow guest, Mary Hamer, it seemed too good a chance to be missed.


The whole weekend went by in a blur so here are some impressions – as much for me to remember as to share with you!

* The first night’s candlelit supper held in Aldeburgh’s extraordinary arts centre right on the beach, The Lookout, with white tablecloths, soup and introductions to many of the poets who’d be reading over the festival, organised by Daphne Warburg Astor (and thanks to Caroline Wiseman.) As the wind howled around us, and you could hear the sea and birds outside, I finally got what Aldeburgh is all about, although I’m rather abashed to find I have a ‘listening to poetry’ face…

poetry face

* ‘Everyone you meet is a poet at Aldeburgh’, I’d been told, and as well as the poets reading from the stage, there were extraordinary poets in the audience just there to listen and think. It seemed so generous in a way I can’t actually remember from other literary festivals where ‘stars’ are airlifted in and out just for their own performances. Interesting what a difference that made.

* Being lucky enough to find friend and Festival blogger, Anthony Wilson, standing by the bookstall one morning and following ALL his recommendations (and a few more). That joy in discovering new poets and poems I wouldn’t otherwise have found. And learning AGAIN to read everything Anthony suggests. He has excellent taste.

poetry books

* Poetry crushes – of course! This time it was the South African poet and novelist, Finuala Dowling. I’d signed up to her workshop on the Friday telling myself I’d use the prompts to write prose, to uncover snippets I could add into the novel, and ended up in exactly the right place to write a poem about something that had only recently happened but which I hadn’t been able to let myself even think about before. Everywhere I went over the festival, I found people quoting things Finuala had said, so here’s a few from my own notebook – ‘Poets end their own lives, but politicians have to be shot’ (I’ve taken that out of context by the way, she wasn’t advocating that we all go out and shoot politicians!) – * on the importance of wit, ‘wit is always subversive’ – * to avoid ‘the mossy stone school of composition’ – * ‘by making yourself vulnerable, you become invulnerable’ – * ‘People judge us all the time, poetry can be a place to fight back.’ – *’self-pity can be an interesting place to go’ – and the all-important ‘What have we left unsaid?’

* Kathleen Jamie’s reading – ahhhhh, and also her comments during the Masterclass she ran. I’d never been to one of these before, it felt uncomfortably like a trial with the three poets whose work was being discussed sitting at a table facing the audience. But interesting. My scribbles include * ‘What am I being asked to see here?’ * If you get others to read your work out loud, you can’t gloss over what you don’t want to engage with. * Have you thought about the left hand margin of your poem? * Apply dowsing rods – where is the energy of the poem? * Is the poem at war with itself? *And lastly that beautiful phrase, the geography of space.


* Walking at Snape and at Aldeburgh. The skies, the skies.


* Stuttering into some kind of meaning for myself during Hannah Silva’s talk about how if the ‘voice’ is actually all about the body then how rarely we let that out during readings, and finding Amy Wragg and John Prebble on exactly the same wavelength – and at the same time! I love these strange moments of connection.

* Listening to poetry in German, not understanding an actual word of it but understanding everything.

* And then one night, after a day crammed with readings and short takes and workshops and discussions, going back to Pam’s house and over whisky and chocolate, taking it in turns to read out poems from our newly purchased books. Reading ‘just one more’ until too late, and then going to bed with so many voices in my dreams.

* Back to Finuala – ‘Write what you yourself were not expecting.’ I wrote FOUR poems over the weekend – how? – and reading them now, I am surprised. I may do nothing with them, but that surprise is worth everything.

* Snippets of conversations, from the sublime, ‘Let me tell you what really matters to me..’ to the ridiculous, ‘You’re writing a novel? Oh well, never mind.’

* A quiet considered intelligent 15-minute talk by Togara Muzanenhamo on Poetry and Disobedience, and his year spent in a derelict house in Manchester discussing line breaks. And sitting next to exactly the right person to share the beauty in this.

rosemary tonks

* And then hovering round the bookstore at the last minute – you don’t need any MORE books, but I do, I do – buying Rosemary Tonks’s collected poems, and not being able to stop reading it since. And now thinking again of the whole weekend through the prism of her words about what real poetry is:

Dealing with the things which really move people. People are born, they procreate, they suffer, they are nasty to one another, they are greedy, they are terribly happy, they have changes in their fortune, and they meet other people who have effects on them, and then they die; and these thousands of dramatic things happen to them, and they happen to everybody. Everybody has to make terrible decisions or pass examinations, or fall in love, or else avoid falling in love. All these things happen and contemporary poets don’t write about them. Why not?

Grateful. Grateful. Grateful.

Thank you especially to Naomi Jaffa and the Poetry Trust for putting this festival on. Join. Support. You can even find yourself a new best friend.

And I’m sure that my fledgeling novel will say THANK YOU too as it gets filled up with tastier verbs, dynamic nouns and all the things we’re not supposed to say.

Once I can tear myself away from reading my new books, of course.

diary of a rebel

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Rhinos, Submissions and Picnics…

Put seven writers together with a list of literary magazines and journals, lots of inspiration, chocolate biscuits and a delicious home-made cake, and – voila! – I’m pleased to have hosted the first Submissions Picnic yesterday as part of my writing classes…


As one of the exercises, we split into two groups for workshopping, and I suggested that each group acted as if they were literary editors. If they received this piece for submission, what would attract them? What would they want more of? It was a different way of thinking from normal writing workshops, not least because the writer of the piece wasn’t there to hear the discussion (although we shared findings afterwards). What amazed me was the common ground in the suggestions – whether it was prose, poetry or hybrid pieces! This is what came out…

* The need for a good title that isn’t there just for impact, but adds context to the story or poem.
* A better beginning, a better beginning, a better beginning – this came up time and time again. We don’t want to wait until the middle to know why and what we’re reading. Have you set the scene – not just landscape, but emotional also?
* Does the story or poem need to be more grounded? Be kind to the reader – add signposts, even if they seem clunky. Have you given the context?
* Layout and editing – even the smallest typo made a bad impression.
* Add an element of surprise – we didn’t want to think we’d read it before.
* Is there tension – why would you read on?
* A satisfying ending.

But here’s another interesting thing – even within the groups of three, there was disagreement over whether the writers could engage with the story or not. One story was loved by two writers, but it just didn’t do anything for the third who wouldn’t have published it, although she could see its literary merits.


SO… just because one magazine editor rejects our work, it doesn’t mean it can never be published again. It doesn’t mean that we are useless writers who should take up knitting instead. We just need to develop tough writing skins. NOT EVERYONE WILL ALWAYS LOVE US.

I know.

It shocks me too.

And just so we don’t always take our submissions too seriously, it’s worth reading this wonderful piece by Christopher Monks, Submission Guidelines for our Refrigerator Door.

ps the picnic was lovely too.

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Round and about….

It’s a busy time at the moment so here are some dates of readings and workshops for you…

Tonight – 20th October – I’m at Tonbridge Writers Hub, 7.30, Tonbridge Adult Education Centre, Avebury Road, talking about ideas and writing. Tickets on the door £5.

Thursday 23rd October, I’m speaking at a Sussex Philanthropy event for the Sussex Community Foundation in Hastings – invitation only.

This Saturday, 26th October, I’m presenting at the Kent Writing and Wellbeing Network, Community Room, The Beaney in Canterbury, 10am, on running workshops, writing outside and writing for wellbeing. Contact Farah at if you would like to come along.

Then on 29th October, I’ll be joining my fellow Canterbury Laureates: Patience Agbabi, Patricia Debney and Dan Simpson for an evening of spoken word and general diva-ness. More information and tickets here.

And on 22nd November, I’m teaching a workshop in memoir and autobiography at the University of Kent Tonbridge Centre. More information here.

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Well, off I hop…

… to space!

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Wondrous things, revolting things, writing things….

I run two writing groups on a Tuesday, and, like most people who do any kind of writing teaching will tell you, the particular joy of this work is that a) I get to share the work of writers I love and b) I get to write new things myself.

pillow book

So yesterday, I’m still buzzing with ideas for writing lists after discussing the amazing Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. Although it was written in the 11th century by a Japanese Imperial Court gentlewoman, many of the descriptions in it still have resonance today. The Pillow Book is a series of small extracts, lists, descriptions of day to day life, impossible to describe really apart from as a ‘crazy quilt’.

pillow book 3

It’s a form that anyone who knows my work will realise has been a tremendous influence on me. Just look at Something Beginning With, and it was a pleasure to take it in a slightly different direction in a collaborative project with the textile artist, Anne Kelly to produce a series of postcards using Sei Shonagon’s categories but bringing them in line with contemporary life.

pillow book 2

I’m not sure if there are many writers who have been able to resist this book – here’s a little extract to explain just why she’s still so relevant today:

Old-fashioned people put on their gathered trousers in a very time-consuming and awkward way. They pull the front panel up against their stomach and proceed first of all to tuck all the layers of robe in under it, leaving the back strings dangling till they’ve got the front completely straight and tidy, then then bend forward to reach for the back panel, groping behind them with both hands. They look like monkeys with their arms tied behind their backs, standing there fumbling about with the strings like that. You can’t imagine how they could ever get dressed and out the door in time for any urgent appointment.

or this one…

Rare Things
A son-in-law who’s praised by his wife’s father. Likewise, a wife who’s loved by her mother-in-law. A pair of silver tweezers that can actually pull out hairs properly. A retainer who doesn’t speak ill of his master. A person who is without a single quirk. Someone who’s superior in both appearance and character, and who has remained utterly blameless throughout his long dealings with the world. You never find an instance of two people living together who continue to be overawed by each other’s excellence and always treat each other with scrupulous care and respect, so such a relationship is obviously a great rarity. Copying out a tale or a volume of poems without smearing any ink on the book you’re copying from. If you’re copying it from some beautiful bound book, you try to take immense care, but somehow you always manage to get ink on it. Two women, let alone a man and a woman, who vow themselves to each other forever, and actually manage to remain on good terms to the end.

There were some great examples written yesterday – and everyone (me included) found it useful because it is too easy to go for the generic examples, something that everyone else would have written down. The trick is to make it personal, and it was only when the writers engaged completely and honestly on the page, that the rest of us nodded away with understanding and, sometimes even better, surprise.


The version of the Pillow Book I use most is the one translated by Meredith McKinney, and I love this quote about how she went about the translation:

“Sei Shônagon is in fact still very much alive and asserting herself, at the very centre of her work. Without the vividness of her personality, the words turn to dust. It was she herself I realized I must translate, quite as much as “the text.”


The postcards you see above are part of the collaboration between Anne Kelly and myself. I do have some copies still if you’d like to email me for a free set – I might ask something in return though, perhaps a poem of yours, or a prompt for me to write, or just something that might fit under the category: ‘Things that give you confidence’ or, go on, why not, ‘Things that are truly splendid’!!

And if you would like to have a go at following a Pillow Book category, here are the ones we used yesterday… enjoy!

• Things people desire
• I do wish men
• I do wish women
• Rare things
• Startling and disconcerting things
• Things that are hard to say
• Occasions for anxious waiting
• Things that no one notices
• Things that give you confidence
• Things that are better at night
• Can it be true

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Let Life Do It…

I’m reading May Sarton’s Plant Dreaming Deep at the moment, an account of her renovation of a New Hampshire farmhouse, but with lots of reflections about writing too. This one hit home:

“It became more necessary than ever to eliminate waste. ‘I wasted time and now doth time waste me.’ was no longer a beautiful phrase but a probing reality. During the snow-bright days and the long evenings sitting by the fire or pacing the floor, I began to understand that for me ‘waste’ had not come from idleness, but perhaps from pushing myself too hard, from not being idle enough, from listening to the demon who says ‘make haste’. I had allowed the wrong kind of pressure to build up, that kind which brings frustration in its wake. I was helped by Louise Bogan’s phrase. ‘Let life do it.’ But what kind of life?”


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Getting out the diary…

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Some dates coming up for the diary…

Saturday 13th September 2014 – Poetry in the Park Workshop at Westgate Gardens, Canterbury for the Wise Words Festival, 11-1pm. Find out more and bring a poem to hang up on a tree here

Monday 13th October 2014 - a four week inspiration for writing course run through the University of Kent at Tonbridge, Kent, 10-12.30. More details here.

Saturday 25th October 2014 - A workshop on journal writing for the Kent Writing and Wellbeing Network at the Beaney Library, Canterbury. Contact me for more details.

Wednesday 29th October 2014 - The Canterbury Laureates – 8pm. Reading at the Canterbury Festival with Patience Agbabi, Patricia Debney and Dan Simpson. More details and tickets here

Saturday 22nd November 2014 – Memoir writing course run through the University of Kent at Tonbridge, Kent, 10-12.30. More details here.

And most Monday afternoons you can find me volunteering at Oxfam Bookshop in Tunbridge Wells. If you are happening to be passing, please do pop in and say hello, and let me help you find the perfect book!

Please note: I do also run a series of popular writing classes and masterclasses from my home in Tunbridge Wells. These are full at present, but I do run a waiting list so let me know if you would like to be put on it.

And to book me for a reading or workshop, get in contact with me at sarahsalway @

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In case I forget…

… what’s important, I have this post-it note by my computer:

did I do the work

What’s by yours?

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A walk with the angels…

I’ve never hidden my love of the connection between walking and creativity so I’m very happy to point you in the direction of a walk with a difference coming up in Tunbridge Wells.

The writer and photographer, Caroline Auckland is running a photography walk as part of the 2014 Heritage Open Days.

Here are the details:

Walking with Angels Sunday 14th September 2014 Tunbridge Wells Cemetery at Hawkenbury

Bring your camera and walk around this peaceful memorial space in search of Angelic monuments to loved ones lost.
This is an opportunity to appreciate the beauty of Victorian Angels in the Cemetery Landscape.
Suitable for anyone with a camera, an interest in memory and a love of Angels as guardians.
Angels are not always easy to find so expect to walk a little distance in sensible shoes and at the same time experience the peace and tranquillity of this beautiful garden for the bereaved.

Time 2.30 from the Chapel.
Numbers: 15 people
Weather permitting.

Booking Caroline Auckland :
Please provide telephone number in application.
To last 1 hour approx.
Some walking involved on uneven terrain.
Start and finish at the Chapel and afterwards enjoy the varied exhibition .

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