Poetry on NewWriting.net

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: term two

It seems I have done half of a degree since I last posted here -apologies to the various friends who have asked me if I was ever going to update my blog again! I’ve been hesitant to post poetry because most of my writing this year – *good writing that is – has been for assessments, and I wasn’t sure if TurnItIn (?) would allow work that had already been on the internet. (Not a feeble excuse. Nope.)

I hope to have a few more things to post here over the next few months, especially as I’m making a half-hearted attempt at NaPoWriMo (I’m counting editing as valid for 1 day’s work). Over the next few weeks, I will be reading poetry at two events in Norwich, which any local readers are cordially invited to attend. Tomorrow you will be able to find me at Café Writers, supporting the winners of their 2014 Pamphlet Competition, Jay Bernard and Jonathan Morley. I’m very excited (and not a little nervous) about this, and hearing excerpts from Jay and Jonathan’s work! This opportunity has come to me as a result of the Ink, Sweat and Tears Scholarship, and I am very grateful for the support and friendship of Kate Birch, who endows the IS&T scholarship. The second event I will be reading at is the launch night of the UEA Poetics festival, which is traditionally planned, run and performed at by the MA cohort. The reading is called Between Us, and will be at 7pm on the 22nd of April at the Moosey Art Gallery in Norwich. I’m very proud to be reading alongside so many talented poets. Turn up early, grab seats, and in five years you can claim to have heard them before they became famous. 

As this is, hypothetically, my online portfolio, I’ll close this with a poem I wrote for last term’s workshop.


Pool Dreams

At first, I was a timid chick
in the water. I swam determined

up-lane, rested: hatchlings
tire quick, they have soft down.

But soft was no good
with watching eyes. So I changed

became an eel, all shape
and sinew, and for a while

anger cut swathes in the water,
and I was fast and sleek.

But there was too much thought
in being an eel, so I began

to dream of being a woman,
and woman I looped bare arms

along the lane markers, and their tension
cut. And I could not do it.

So last I became a sea turtle.
Let my hands drop in the water and fuse

into trapezoid flippers,
my head dip in the stroke,

and the carapace close
round my head and back.

Full changed, though I kept
it quiet, barely above surface, and

so powerful. It tore into my gut
to heave myself out, and revolve back

into my own skin, which had started
to forget itself.

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.

To The Estate of W.H. Auden: Please don’t sue me

There are two months between me and the start of my Master’s degree in poetry, and one year between me and the Great Post Master’s Degree Lull where I will either be brimming with shiny ideas and applying for PhD’s, or more likely, sitting in my parent’s house, browsing the internet for something to do which will combine earning money and avoiding telephones. I’m hoping for the former and preparing for the latter.

But before then there’s the Master’s. So I have to a) start writing more poetry and b) start trying to get it published, because only poets with pre-existing reputations sell or get invited to do anything, and currently my entire reputation is ‘goes to UEA’. I’m pretty damn proud of that, but on it’s own, it’s like trying to get a job by announcing that your mother/father is in the House of Lords. (Unfortunately not true. Oh, this would be a different blog if it were.)

I tried preparing some poems for submission earlier, but chickened out. I refuse to submit anything older than six months because I feel like I’m nicking someone else’s writing when I do (‘What were you thinking when you wrote this?’ ‘No idea’) and in all honestly, the best stuff I’ve written this academic year were the poems for my dissertation last Autumn, with the exception of a sequence I’m still working on. (Meaning: started and haven’t finished.)

However, as self-punishment for failing to submit to any journals, I have to publish something here. This is a draft from earlier, and like pretty much everything that I put on my blog, I’ll probably take down and repost with a revised version in six months’ time. One of my problems is that the stuff I tend to write – or at least, the better stuff – is intensely personal ,whhich makes it hard to submit to magazines.

I’ll give you some explanation on this, even though it is deeply frowned upon in Serious Poetry Reading Circles. This poem uses elements of Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts, not because I think I’m worthy so much as to kiss his carpet slippers (n.b, pamphlet title? ‘Auden’s Shoes’?) but because some lines from it popped into my head when I started writing and I wanted to see what would happen if I tried bouncing off them. The rough point of the original poem is that no-one notices Icarus falling; as I got towards the end, I realised it was a way of coming to terms with the subject matter of the poem, i.e., my fatness: declaring that it didn’t really matter and getting on with Everything Else. Thanks, Auden, although I think this poem might weird you out a little bit.

Anyway. Poem.

In Which I Address The Anonymous Speaker Who Feels The Need To Make An Anonymous Comment Concerning Themselves About Someone Else’s Weight

About being fat, they where never wrong,
the Old Masters: how its rolls and bumps
would touch awkwardly when you walk, or
rub gently in the soft confines of a good skirt;

how strangers would flick their eyes over you twice,
or not at all, and either look
would be a little disaster – how even just walking
up the stairs, as other people do,
would play the lungs like organs. Or how

in the mornings, the tired naked stumble
would end in arrest at the mirror: those thighs,
you think, that stomach. On the scales
the little obnoxious numbers declare

it’s two stone more, even tried after
new batteries have been dug out and the dusty back
cracked open and swapped. No good, still fat.

And so there’s this poem. Pissing on Auden,
whose elderly cousin once wished me well
at church. Uneven stanzas like curves.
So: I’ll drop this poem into the water,

with Icarus’s skinny legs: I’m fat, no disaster,
this ship has somewhere else to be and is definitely sailing on.