Ink, Sweat and Tears: two poems and an interview // prayer and poetry in Monastic life

Earlier this month, I was interviewed by Ink, Sweat and Tears. It was wonderful to hear from them, and share news of our respective years – it’s been a strange, busy, and wonderful year post-masters, and I’m only just starting to accept that I am no longer a student. My studies are more informally focused on theology at present, and I’m still fascinated by devotional and spiritual poetry.

If this doesn’t scare you off, you can read two of the devotional poems from my master’s dissertation, as well as the interview, here – these are two of my favourite poems and I am very proud to share them with the world.

As I write this, I’m brainstorming potential workshop ideas, and thinking about the practical applications of poetry (and yes, I’m aware of the heavy burden of critical theory surrounding those words…) Ten days ago I was commissioned as a member of the Holywell Community, a new monastic community in Abergavenny, South Wales. Over the next year, I will live an adapted version of the Rule of St Benedict, praying, living in community, and working with the churches here. Abergavenny is surrounded by the Brecon Beacons, and every morning I walk to prayers in an ancient monastic church, through an old glacier-carved landscape rich in language and culture and faith.

The reality of monastic living is that as poetic as it sounds on paper, day-to-day life is often more prosaic. Dinner has to be cooked, bins taken out, hymns chosen, chairs stacked. If you look for poetry, you may be disappointed in its absence. It must be grown and lived and breathed. Made an office of the day. If I learnt one thing from long nights before deadlines, it was that blessed few can hear poetry on angelic tongues in the air like Rilke; most of us have to work at it. And all this, being true of poetry, is also true of faith. These days, I find to talk of one is to talk of the other. Prayer and poetry are the same motion. I only hope that the pattern of daily prayer here will also inspire me to write.

I’m still interested in freelance editing and developing my critical practice, but for the moment these aspects of my work will be focused on the Holywell Community; our blog can be found here if you are interested in following our work in Abergavenny. I also occasionally edit pieces for the excellent Cam Writes blog, run by writer, podcaster, filmmaker and critic Cameron McCulloch-Keeble; Cam reviews and writes about film, gaming and other media, and his blog is well worth your time.

Until next time, may words serve you well, and you serve the Word…

(shhh. I’m trying)


Moving the (rugby) posts

Apologies for the long absence – it’s been a year of change so far, adapting to life post university. But I’m starting to get back on my game with writing, and discovering new interests. Having focused on poetry over the last few years, I’m enjoying diversifying my reading at the moment, especially in non-fiction. I’m writing for myself, and although I don’t have the *encouragement* of grades and deadlines, it’s great to be able to pick up and put down projects, and try out new ideas.

Having lived in Northampton for around a year now, I’ve been trying to make it feel like home. Driving lessons are a surprisingly good way to get a feel for a place. I now know that Duston is pronounced Dusson, that the area around the rugby ground is Jimmy’s End (for St James, the patron saint of the local parish church), and that the only place I can afford to eat in town on a lower-end salary is Greggs. I’ve been exploring beautiful old churches (St Sepulchre’s), been converted to Gilbert and Sullivan by the talented Northampton Gilbert and Sullivan Group, and met and talked to so many wonderful, and kind people. I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few months waiting for buses in the town centre, and I noticed that if someone falls over, people here will have picked them up and bought them a cup of tea in the space of time it takes most people to say ‘Oh dear!’. Sometimes Northampton feels a little unloved, but not by the people who live here.

And so I was delighted to discover the The NeneQuirer, a local magazine which is driven by the same love and excitement for everything Northampton has to offer. It’s informative, intelligent and slightly sarcastic (but with a deep reverence for the things that matter, such as in their article on the great Tim Piggott-Smith’s death whilst performing in the town).

The NeneQuirer have also been kind enough to publish my article on the Saint’s Academy side, the Northampton Wanderers, and their cup game against Gloucester United, which you can find here. Being a Northampton Saints supporter has made me feel at home here more than I ever imagined was possible, and wherever I go next, I’ll take my love for the Saints and Northampton with me.

In other news, I’m really enjoying editing at the moment, and am looking or more opportunities to edit or proofread. If you’re looking for some freelance editing work, including poetry editing, academic proofreading, and blog/online content editing, I would love to hear from you. My contact details can be found here, or you can contact me on twitter @joanna_hollins . I’ll hopefully have some links up to editing work in the future, so watch this space!

Poetry on

and my first post, officially, as Joanna Hollins MA. I’m so proud to be a graduate of the Literature, Drama and Creative Writing department at UEA, twice over, and will miss Norwich and the university tremendously.

LDC run a website for UEA student and graduate writing, #NewWriting, and this week they have been featuring pieces by this year’s graduates. If you visit the site, do browse – it’s full of vibrant and exciting goodness. I’m grateful that they have published three of my poems, written around the beginning of this year.

[…] and I’m dreaming of the shrivelled thing
in Room A, of crayon Pharaoh heads,
my brain hooked out of my nose and sealed

in a jar and the lid shutting on my arms
and the musty breath of the Pharaoh
in the sarcophagus with me – and after […]

        […] Guards shooting at bombs
and landlords stuffing letters
aggressively through their doors […]

[…] my ballet teacher
tilts back my chin […]


Thank you so much for reading, and thank you everyone who has been so supportive of my writing over the last year, especially my workshop group, my ever patient housemates, ‘the hoover’ (you know who you are), and my family, who suffered many one-sided conversations on 21st century religious poetry, my feelings about Wordsworth, and exactly how I think libraries should be laid out. You made this possible.

MA Creative Writing, Week One: I Need To Understand Poetry

It’s 4.10, Sunday afternoon, and I’m finishing the work I have set for my first proper seminars of the course. I have one chapter left to read (I thought I’d finished all the reading for this week, but a quick check of my schedule yesterday revealed that was not the case), and two small tasks for my first workshop.

I’m not too worried about the reading. I’ve been sitting in cafés and the university library making diligent notes on Marianne Moore (‘i think i get this – no what’) and Plato (‘is this ironic???’), and I think I’m getting the hand of it. The problem is those two little tasks for the workshop. Task the first, I need to find a recent poem that I have written which could be considered ‘representative of my style of writing’. I spent a fair while yesterday opening and closing poems on my computer, and eventually put the task off until today. I am mortified by the thought of showing my writing to a class of poets, especially as the ones I’ve heard read so far are really, really good. I’m aware that I’m going to have to get over this fairly soon, but at the moment it feels like a bit of a hurdle. I’m puppy-natured; I always want to please, and if I think someone is displeased with me, I have to resist the urge to hide. At the moment, I’m veering between a kind of extreme, out-going confidence and this sheer terror, meaning I have spent half the week socialising, showing off and dancing around campus, and the other half lying in dead silence on my bed, waiting for my landlady to go out so that I can make a cup of tea without another human seeing me. This is probably not normal.

Task the second, I have to write a short paragraph (I’m thinking three sentences) answering the question, ‘What can poetry do?’ The original aim of this blog post was to answer this question (and so trick myself into doing the task). I seem to have got sidetracked.

So. What can poetry do?

This feels like a trick question.

It feels like the answer should be clever. It should talk about metaphors and language, about form and structure, about syntax and connection between reader/writer and verse through history. It’s a miniature ars poetica.

During the second year of my degree, our poetry class had to look at a whole load of statements from poets about what poetry meant to them, or what they thought poetry could do, and most of those statements went along the lines of ‘Poetry is the whirlwind eye of the vortex, that concentrates nebulas of verbs along the paradigm shift of historical thinking.’ And this really irritated me. You needed degree-level reading experience to get all the meaning and flavour out of these quotes, but basically it boiled down to ‘poetry is clever and beautiful’. If I was at a conference, I know which of those sentences would make me sit up and listen to the speaker. The irritant, however, was not that I thought the longer, wordier sentence pretentious or convoluted (even if I did), but that I found it exclusionary. We talk about poetry in this special language reserved for lit critics and academics. Not just poetry: anything we class as ‘high-brow literature’. And it creates this barricade between people who have had the advantage of education – which often comes from a background of advantage of ethnicity, gender, class or physical ability – and people who haven’t. Then we compound the problem by teaching poetry badly in schools, so young people are unable to access poetry itself, let alone get far enough with it to realise that there’s a huge chunk of academia which will look down on them and set impossibly high barriers for entry in order to keep poetry and other ‘high-brow’ arts exclusive.

I’m not saying this is the standard across academia; there is a lot of good education and good educators out there; there are changing attitudes and progressive thinkers. But this is the stuff we have to push through, this is the attitude behind half the articles I have to read and, frankly, a lot of the poetry I have to read too.

And this brings me back to the question of what poetry can ‘do’. to do: the ultimate active word; the word implying change and motion and achievement. If an art or a discipline or any thinking, creative space is boxed in and made exclusive it is out of fear of what that art can DO – how it can change and challenge the Establishment, perhaps even itself.

So here are some things that poetry does.

  • It is a social marker and a vehicle for our cultural memories and identity. It is You’ll Be a Man and the Song of Solomon and Footprints in the Sand and For the Fallen and I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. Verse, as far as I’m aware, pre-dates any other form of literature; it certain pre-dates the novel, and studies of isolated cultures suggest that oral traditions, including songs and poems, have been a core part of community life and heritage since the dawn of civilisation. It binds together what is important to us and preserves it, and even as it disintegrates in time it leaves words and phrases and ideas lodged in our language and our beliefs.
  • It makes ‘deep stuff’ accessible and acceptable. Poetry has a weird and complex relationship with emotion – at some points in history, anything less that complete objectivity (ha) would have seemed a misuse of its Masculine Nobleness etc – but at this point, 21st century, poetry seems to be associated with sentiment, and intimacy. Plato might not have approved, but it makes poetry a useful tool for therapy and personal development. Poetry workshops are taught in schools and pupil referral units, festivals and prisons, youth clubs and care homes. It can enable people to confront issues they are otherwise unable to talk about; it can help build group bonds; it can encourage mental well-being and activity. Although this aspect of poetry isn’t talked about in the classrooms, poetry is and has always been a pragmatic art. Intriguingly, although most poets and teachers of poetry have to make their living by engaging with this kind of education, there seems to be a separation between this ‘pragmatic poetry’ and our kind of poetry: we talk about the first in Guardian health columns, and the second between the sheets of Poetry Review, and it’s a shame, because the work done for the former is so, so good.
  • It gives voices to the voiceless – and more importantly, provides a really good excuse to get their voices heard. There are books of poetry, often self-published or from small presses, which celebrate minorities, underprivileged groups, and causes which aren’t fashionable enough to break into the mainstream media. With its ability to stir emotion as well as thought, this is a game changing activity. There are some amazing collections out there; I have found writing about bereavement, about sexuality, about drug addiction, about the importance of father hood, about Jeremy Corbyn and why he should win the election. Every time I find something like this my heart skips. I use this argument to remind myself why I’m doing a master’s in writing instead of trying to solve world poverty (as in. use the field you’re good at to do some good). I also use this argument to explain why I’m not working in finance. 

I suspect this is not the answer I am meant to give, because this week’s reading has been about finding truth within poetry, and so I am probably meant to talk about the ‘insides’ of poetry – the forms, the content, the language. I have a back-up answer based on rhyming couplets for this scenario. But maybe I’ll talk about poetry as social action anyway, because even if it turns out that poetry doesn’t have some instinctive structural relationship with truth, it does for the young offenders who participated in this projector the dementia sufferers working with the Living Words projectPoetry lets the scared and wordless and shy and sick share the truth of their lives. 

And that is definitely worth talking about.