Bees have been doing it themselves for millenia

Beekeeping is a constant process of thought and reflection on what might have gone wrong. Funny how we often spend less time thinking about what went right!

image showing a black queen bee with red ink on her wings
image showing a marked black queen bee

Most beekeepers mark their queens. When you’re looking for one bee in a colony of 50,000+ it’s a great help although so long as there’s eggs, you don’t need to actually see her. Two weeks ago I spotted the most beautiful black queen and left a neat red dot on her thorax. The following week she had ink all over her wings. I’m thinking she must have brushed against other bees before it was dry. It doesn’t seem to have harmed her and she’s now really easy to spot!

image showing capped and uncapped queen cells on the bottom of a frame
image showing capped and uncapped queen cells on the bottom of a frame

Two weeks ago the strongest hive was in the final stages of preparing to swarm.  Books and beekeepers say a capped queen cell means the colony has already gone, taking the old queen with up to 75% of the bees with her. There were eleven queen cells, several capped, but also saw eggs so I knew she’d been active in the past three days.    I’ve never seen this queen. She’s shy and likes to hide, but the colony clearly wanted to swarm so intervention was required.

It took a while to decide what to do. This year I’m trying not to text my mentor every time I have a problem. Instead, I’m trying to sort it out myself.  It was easier before!

I made up two small nucs with some of the best queen cells. Again the books and beekeepers recommend finding the queen and putting her in the nuc, leaving her colony to raise a new one. I’ve done it the other way around a few times and it’s nearly always worked,. These nucs are now being left alone for a couple of weeks to get establish.

Last week, I returned to the donor hive. No new swarm cells, which was good, but a single capped queen cell was in the centre of the outer frame of stores.

image showing a sealed queen cell on a frame of stores
image showing a sealed queen cell on a frame of stores

There are different types of queen cells and a beekeeper has to try and decide what’s going on.

  • Swarm cells – often a dozen or more, they frequently hang down from the bottom of the frame and are a sign the colony is running out of space.
  • Supercedure cells – usually 1-4 and often in the centre of a frame, they signal something is wrong with the present queen; she’s ageing, diseased or has run out of sperm, and the bees are replacing her.
  • Emergency cells – often 1-2, usually in the centre of a frame and a sign the queen has died.

When I started beekeeping I quickly learned the truth of the saying ‘ask three beekeepers and get five different replies‘. The outer frame of stores is an unusual place to find a queen cell but the bees have been taking care of themselves for millennia and we have to learn to trust them to know what they’re doing.

image showing bees building combs from wax
image showing bees building wax cells on a frame of comb

I was sure it wasn’t a swarm cell. This left supercedure or emergency options. Either way, they were replacing their queen so I left the cell alone.

This week, the cell was uncapped suggesting they now had a virgin queen, waiting for better weather so she could go on a mating flight.  Again, I left the hive alone. They have two super boxes with plenty of storage space. There’s also new frames in the brood box to replace those taken out when I made nucs with their swarm cells.

image showing an open queen cell surrounded by bees
image showing an uncapped queen cell

This inspection was relatively quick.

I’m still leaving alone the nucs I made with swarm cells two weeks ago.

The nucs housing the small winter clusters are thriving. Their queens are in full-on laying mode and they’ll soon be ready to go back into full-size hives.

image showing two nucleus hives next to a full sized hive
image showing two nucs next to a full-sized hive

The final hive was a bit irritable towards the end of last summer and I got plenty of stings. This year they seem fine again and their queen is laying well. No swarm cells yet but I need to be prepared. I can perform a preventative swarm method, either a Pagden or a Demaree or alternatively, wait for them to tell me they want to go, then make a few more splits to increase colony numbers. At the moment, I’m not sure which but I have a week to decide.

images showing a beekeeper lighting a smoker and a group watching an insepction of a hive
images showing a beekeeper lighting a smoker and a group watching an inspection of a hive

This weekend I also helped out at the local Beekeeping Association Open Day. Thirty people attended, all interested in finding out about the bees. Taking part in an event like this is one of the best ways to discover how you feel standing in the middle of thousands of flying bees. It was a chilly morning so the bees were lively. I got a sting through my veil but I enjoyed the session.

For anyone interested in beekeeping, I’d recommend looking for your local association and seeing if they have any similar events planned. Beverley Beekeepers demonstrate how to light a smoker and then a beekeeper will talk everyone through an inspection with one of the Association’s hives.

The more I learn about bees, the more there is to discover. It’s a permanent learning curve. Bees do their own thing but once you learn the basics about reading a hive and its frames, then keeping bees can be fascinating and sometimes magical. I never get tired of watching them.

image of a bee sucking at a drop of spilt honey
image of a bee sucking at a drop of spilt honey




Crone poetry

It’s not easy fighting the archetype of ageing, Regardless of how you feel inside, the external world views white hair and facial lines as indicative of endings rather than beginnings.

An unplanned early retirement scared me. Work was my structure. Without it, I didn’t know how to live.  Three things changed these feelings.

  • redesigning my allotment reminded me I love growing fruit, veg and flowers,
  • keeping honeybees, which continues to be the most amazing journey,
  • lack of time was no longer a viable excuse for not writing.

Signing up for one of Wendy Pratt‘s ‘prompt a day‘ poetry courses, I began to write again. It wsn’t always easy and times have changed. Wendy says it better than me in her recent post How to Give Yourself Permission to Write.

On reading this, I felt the resonance!

Older women have to face… …the psychological blocks, and the societal blocks that prevent people, particularly older women, from writing.

Wendy continues… There is a prejudice in society that says that older women are, at best dull, at worst invisible.

All this I know!

I wanted my sixth decade to have new adventures and planned to walk The Camino de Santiago or Way of St. James, a pilgrimage route covering 500 miles from the French Pyrenees to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain.

One of the highlights would have been seeing the incense-filled botafumeiro swing the length of the cathedral during a Friday night mass for pilgrims. I don’t follow any monotheistic religious system, but am interested in belief and ritual; the botafumeiro in Santiago de Compostela had been on my experience list for some time.

Then Covid happened.

Flights, accommodation etc. all cancelled. I still haven’t used my backpack, but the walking boots are great for the allotment.

During my sixties, I felt increasingly invisible in public. The phrase  ‘older woman’ appeared to mean less rather than more. Not unemployed, I  also seemed to be unemployable. Poetry gave me a new voice, one where age didn’t matter – or did it?

Archetypes are powerful drivers of human reactions. I fight the cultural stereotype of aging but it’s like two different realities. I don’t feel my age so when I look in a mirror, it can be a shock to realise there’s less years ahead than behind.  Older women seem invisible to all except their own age group. Do we really have less value?

I’m a late starter to poetry publication. Socially shy, and familiar with Imposter Syndrome,  face-to-face interactions can be a struggle, but poetry allows me to speak as anyone, anywhere, and I love that freedom.

After Thetis was published last year, I felt blocked for months. It was like staring into black or feeling the truth of Wendy’s expectation list in How to Give Yourself Permission to Write,

The biggest block to writing is expectation… the expectation that, as an older writer, women in particular, you have nothing to say. The expectation that you are too late in your years to even think about writing. The expectation that you’d be no good at it anyway.

After Jack Caradoc (Dreich) published Heaving with the Dreams of Strangers early in 2022, I didn’t know how to begin a second collection.

I love Greek myth; e.g. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Euripides’ dramatic tragedies (the Trojan women)  and fragments from Sappho.  I wanted to follow Thetis with a prose narrative about Odysseus and Kalypso but follow-ups are hard.

In April, I began Gods and Monsters, an online prompt-a-day poetry course with Angela Carr. Drawn to its theme of Greek myth, something clicked, and I could feel the words coming back.

During May, I’m taking Wendy Pratt’s Religion of Water group, and hoping the poetry continues to grow and develop.

When I’m feeling blocked, the writing itself must be continued. I’ve learned not to stop. Don’t wait for inspiration to come back. Make the physical act of writing, part of your daily routine.

It can be hard to not be producing something you feel is worthwhile and possibly publishable. Instead, you have to settle for writing as an exercise, like going to the gym when you don’t want to, or making yourself tackle something from the To Do list which you’ve been putting off.

I returned to morning pages. This activity can be found in The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. It consists of writing three pages of stream-of-consciousness thoughts, or free-writing, first thing in the morning. In the short-term, writing anything that comes into your head might feel silly or a waste of time, but it keeps the creativity doors open and can pay off in the long run.

Following Wendy’s post, there were some interesting tweets for poetry competitions aimed at women of a certain age.

  • King Lear Prizes National Creative Arts Competition for Over-60s, deadline 14th July.
  • The Alchemy Spoon pamphlet competition for ‘new phase’ poets, coming late to poetry, often following retirement, or significant life change. Submissions (theme of friends) closes May 31st.
  • The Grey Hen Press publishes poetry by ‘older women’ and are looking for poems on any subject, max 40 lines, from women age 60 or over.

We all like positive role models, but it can be hard to find appropriate ones. Knowing some publishers recognise the potential value of experience is a comfort.

Ageing is inevitable like death, taxes and single-person supplements, but our years of experience offer a unique position from which to write.

We are Crone Poets!

Time might not be on our side but our perspective of lifelong learning and hard-earned wisdom ensures what we say might be worth listening to.

All images from except the bees, which is mine, and the Crone image from the Dreams of Gaia tarot pack by Ravynne Phelan.



dead bees…

I’ve had my first colony death. With only five hives, the loss is a visible one and I feel responsible for the demise of so many bees.

Of the four remaining colonies, two seem ok but the others are very small. It’s been too cold to get inside and see what’s going on, so  I don’t yet know if they have laying queens. I also need to check for space, stores and signs of disease. Last year felt like I was getting the hang of beekeeping. Now I have more questions than answers and feel like a new apprentice again.

Bees can survive cold. It’s damp which is the killer. Over winter, a colony will cluster around their queen. They need to keep her warm and fed until the return of new supplies of pollen and nectar. Once temperatures rise, the cluster will disperse, freeing the queen to lay eggs and the forager bees to get out for fresh food and water.

Over Easter weekend, I lifted the hive roofs for a quick external assessment. It was too cold to disturb them further but next week is forecast to be warmer so I’m hoping to get inside and see what’s happening.

No one wants the death of a hive, but it’s definitely a learning opportunity.

I think my first mistake was misjudging the colony size in Autumn. Two hives were much stronger than the other and I should have used them as the baseline. If I’d merged them with the smaller ones, the clusters could have maintained an essential inner 35C, with the cluster exterior no less than 9C. Winter bees live six months, compared to the six-week lifespan of summer bees, but there will still be natural deaths throughout the colder months. This is risky for the weaker colonies as smaller clusters are less likely to regulate and maintain heat.

I’m thinking the second mistake was connected to leaving each hive with a super box of stores. My hives are British Standard Nationals. These consist of a brood box where the queen lays eggs and new larvae are reared, plus a smaller super box on top where the bees make honey in hexagonal cells of wax comb. I’d read about the risk of colony starvation, where it gets too cold for bees to leave the cluster and fetch stores, but this year I had extra honey so thought I was doing them a favour by giving it back.

Beekeeping may be one of the most contentious subjects in existence!

Ask three beekeepers the same question and you’ll get five different answers. For every argument in favour of removing supers over winter, there are others saying leave them on. In general terms, beekeeping is very much an individual practice and it takes time to learn the best way forward.

Did the colony die of starvation?

I wasn’t sure. The last time I saw them alive was in January when they were treated for the parasitic varroa mite.  The colony was small, but starvation death often leaves protruding tongues and there was no sign of any proboscis.

They hadn’t touched the stores in the super but had eaten most of the brood box stores. The photo below shows how the cluster died a short distance from capped honey.

A cluster will move across the frames so long as they can maintain their warmth, but are less likely to move into cold spaces. I think the cluster was too small to keep warm. Cold doesn’t kill a healthy colony but they will struggle with damp. It’s rained a lot this year and I forgot to put insulation in the roofs. How much difference that might have made is unclear, but it could be a contributory factor.

I’m thinking the colony was unable to retain the necessary warmth, making it less able to search for stores.

Was it a mistake to leave the supers on?

I don’t think so. Although blossom is on the trees, and bulbs and spring flowers are out, there’s only been a few times when it’s been warm enough for foraging. The supers in the strong hives looked as they should. A perfect semicircle of empty cells where the cluster was strong enough to access their stores until temperatures improve.

What about the weaker hives?

In January I noticed the supers on the weaker hives were untouched so I uncapped the bottom rows of cells. This freed the honey to drip into the brood box, as a tastable, smellable reminder of the presence of stores. When I looked last weekend, the uncapped cells were licked clean but no others had been opened.

image showing the clean cells where they were uncapped in January but the reminder stayed untouched.
image showing the clean cells where they were uncapped in January but the reminder stayed untouched.

The clusters are really small so I’m hoping they can survive till next week’s predicted sunshine when I can do a proper inspection. In the meantime, I’ve taken the supers off the weaker hives and left some fondant directly above them, ensuring an easy source of energy for the present time.

Whatever you do in beekeeping there will be critique and people falling over themselves to offer alternative suggestions. This is mostly done in the nicest possible way but can leave you confused and unsure of what to do next.

I’m learning that experience is the most reliable teacher although whatever you choose to do, it might work or it might not – and that’s beekeeping for you!

image showing a healthy hive with bees all across the top of the frames
image showing one of the healthy hives

Watch this space to see what happens next week when, fingers crossed, I can get inside the hives for a closer look.

writer’s block and winter blues

image showing the black outline of a leafless tree emerging from grey fog

Something hits my down-button every winter. Usually it passes as spring returns, but this time feels worse because I’ve lost my words as well.

Forget Eliot’s lilacs in April. For me, February and March are the cruellest months.

So what to do?

I’ve been up and down for years, but this is the first time a connection between low mood and writer’s block has been so evident. I lack energy, and my poems are in hiding, but I’ve managed to keep up the habit of journaling.

The routine comes from The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. Each chapter of the book focuses on elements of creative identity. Every day you write a few pages of stream-of-consciousness thoughts. Don’t think, just write what comes into your head. The process is more important than the content.

It’s not a new idea. In 1934, Dorothea Brande wrote a book called Becoming a Writer. Old-fashioned in style, the advice is sound and worth looking out for.

….rise half an hour, or a full hour, earlier than you customarily rise. Just as soon as you can – and without talking, without reading the morning’s paper, without picking up the book you laid aside the night before – begin to write.

Dorothea calls the practice training to be a writer. Like Julia, the idea is to focus on the act of writing rather than the art. It’s easy to spend too much time chasing the perfect phrase or poem, but writing also needs to be habitual.  Giving yourself permission to write freestyle on a regular basis can be unexpectedly liberating.

I’ve been feeling pressure to produce in 2023.

It’s self-imposed but 2022 was such a good year, I want to keep the momentum going.

In March I won the Dreich ‘Slims’ competition with Heaving with the dreams of strangers, one of four out of 240+ submissions to be selected by Jack Caradoc and his team.

In November Thetis was published by Felix Hodcroft at Esplanade Press. A blend of storytelling, script and poetry, this poetic narrative retells the Trojan Wars through the eyes of Thetis, mother to Achilles. I’ve been working on it for several years so it’s strange to have no further projects in preparation and even worse, to feel my poet-voice has gone AWOL.

Maybe post-publication blues is normal, especially when combined with winter and a scarcity of new ideas.

Over the years, I’ve learned the risk of giving into the dark is the further you fall, the harder it is to surface again.

image showing the ainting by the Antwerp School titled Orpheus searching for Eurydice with Persephone and Hades in the background
Orpheus Searching Eurydice in the Underworld, a painting by the Antwerp school, 1675–1699

One of the ways I’ve learned to deal with this is to take structured opportunities to be creative.

In February, I took part in Into the Underworld, a poetry course facilitated by Wendy Pratt. I managed 7 out of 8 drafts and although I’m not sure if any will become poems, it’s 7 more ideas which wouldn’t have appeared otherwise.

In April I’m taking a prompt-a-day course called Gods and Monsters with Angela Carr.  This is based on Greek myth which I love, so it seemed too good an opportunity to miss.

image shows a selection of faces and plaques from greek mythology
selection of faces and characters from Greek mythology

Do other people feel like this?

Winter blues?

Writer’s block?

Problems with self-promotion?

Imposter Syndrome?

It doesn’t take much for my Imposter Syndrome to rear up and the voice start to natter in my head again.

I was lucky.

Last year was a fluke.

If I don’t produce anything publishable this year, it will confirm last year was a fluke.

I enjoyed the online poetry events I did last year but promoting in real-time, face-to-face, terrifies me. I learned to cope for work, but the last time I presented was over 3 years ago and poetry is so much more personal.

Imposter Syndrome is tough. For most people, it has childhood roots.  Comments such as ‘you’ll never be good enough‘ and ‘no one will ever listen to you‘ make me doubt my own abilities. Despite learning coping methods over the years, self-promotion remains a challenge.

Here’s a TED Talk about Imposter Syndrome.

In this talk, presenter Lou Solomon says 70% of people are familiar with what she calls the fantastic four; anxiety, perfectionism, self-doubt, and fear of failure but suggests the figure 70% is way too low.

During the short winter days, when it’s too cold for the allotment and my bees, there’s still books to read and these are some of my go-to titles…

…and some additional resources on writer’s block:

To finish with, if you’re new to the concept of free writing, here’s another advocacy statement.

Freewrite is good advice for any writer. Write without pausing to worry about sentence structure, grammar, spelling, or whether what you’re saying makes sense or not. Just write without second-guessing anything. While most of it will be unusable, it’s a good way to push through the block. Masterclass 

Over the years, freewriting has become such a regular practice it feels strange not to do it. The morning journal is a bridge between bad days and good ones. Most of all, it’s a valuable way to re-ground myself in the concept of being a writer. The poems might be taking a break but there are always words (and images!) offering reassurance and comfort.

image shows a winters' day, snow on the ground, black outline of trees, and a setting golden sun reflecting in the river

poetry summary 2022

front cover of the book titled Thetis a poetic narrative - image shows a woman's torso on a black background

Thetis is a poetic narrative which retells the Trojan war through the eyes of Thetis, mother to Achilles.  Published by Esplanade Press, Thetis was launched at Gallery Six in Scarborough in November 2022.

Background to Thetis can be found in an earlier post titled The Tragedy of Thetis.

Copies of Thetis are available from Sue at watlingsue@gmail dot com at £8+£2 p&p or by calling in at Gallery Six on Victoria Road in Scarborough, or the Stephen Joseph Theatre shop.

From the back cover of Thetis…

Goddess, wife and mother, bewitching, passionate and tragic, Thetis is the forgotten figure of Greek myth. Now her tale is told at last in Sue Watling’s stunning poetic narrative.  Thetis is a tale of warriors and gods, of mortals and immortals, of rage, revenge and love. A story as relevant today as it was three thousand years ago…

Thetis was featured by Scarborough writer Kate Evans on Scarborough Mysteries

Endorsements for Thetis

Sue Watling’s ambitious Thetis is a tour de force. The way she melds narrative myth with contemporary idiom is remarkable. Yet this is not simply a modern version or translation of classical myths. Thetis also offers lyrical poetry which could stand alone as being of the highest order while remaining accessible and eminently readable. The end result is something powerful and unique, showcasing Sue’s impressive talent for dialogue, imaginative story-telling and spot-on description. I have no hesitation in recommending Thetis to all readers – not just those of poetry. You will not be disappointed!
Sue Wilsea, writer and performer

The pace of the text is galloping but assured, in controlled short staccato lines, never threatening to run away with itself or the focus, these events are seen, reported on through the eyes of Thetis, always with an eye on her precious son. The text incorporates a useful glossary of who everyone is in this enormous cast of characters, both Greek and Trojan, so if you’re not familiar that should be no barrier to reading this wonderful book. It is in fact an excellent place to start, even if you know nothing about Troy, it is a text that is fully alive and immersed in its telling and employs some modern vernacular too. The story is captivating and can be read for its own charms, presented in short a book that will appeal to all readers who love a good story and not just those interested in mythmaking anew.
Sarah Wallis, poet and playwrite 

Sue’s first poetry chapbook, Heaving with the dreams of strangers, was published by Jack Caradoc at Dreich in March 2022. Copies can be purchased from Dreich (£5) or direct from Sue at watlingsue@gmail dot com

The collection contains poems based on myth, legend and biblical stories. These include Samson and Delilah, the Willendorf Venus, Odin, Selkies, and Icarus.

The title poem, which also closes the collection, is copied below.

Heaving with the dreams of strangers

To play you,
I’d pluck tails from horses,
axe the maple,
pound linseed for oil,
shine your skin,
tighten the strings,
speak music.

Here are my songs,
splashed on staves,
like shaken rain,
arpeggios wriggle,
clefs unwind,
crotchets try to tango.

Let the music play
and I will find you,
even here,
this rain-drenched town,
heaving with
the dreams of strangers.

Endorsements for Heaving with the dreams of strangers 

This is one of those rare collections that manages to bridge the mythical and mystical to the land of the everyday. The poems are strange, rich and wonderful, with exciting turns and interesting imagery. Sue Watling’s skill with a lyrical line and deft use of pace and pause within her poems makes for a collection that draws the reader in and keeps them there from beginning to end. One to return to. 

Wendy Pratt, author of When I think of my body as a horse, (Smith|Doorstop, The Poetry Business, 2021, winner of the International Book & Pamphlet Competition, The Poetry Business, 2020). @wondykitten 

Sue Watling takes us on a journey through myth and history, redolent with the scents and sense of the sea, of landscape, nature and transformation. On the way we meet gods and mortal men, 18th century female seafarers, Red Riding Hood, Jeanne d’Arc, Venus of Willendorf and Delilah, moving from realism that is magical to magic that is real, touched by love and loss. These are poems that shapeshift from quiet power to loud striking beauty, creating a world and wordscape you will want to revisit again and again. 

Louise Longson, author of Hanging Fire (Dreich 2021) and Songs from the Witch Bottle; cytoplasmic variations (Alien Buddha Press, 2022). @LouisePoetical 

In this collection, Sue Watling uses nature, myth, and a touch of magical realism, to create memorable images for our disappointments, yearnings and fears. There’s an edge to much of her writing, achieved, without grandstanding, through clear, strong language and powerful emotional undercurrents. Despite the darkness swirling around the many voices and lives she writes of, she shows hope, pride and passion undimmed. 

Felix Hodcroft, author of Life after life after death (Valley Press, 2016) and Rehearsing for this (Esplanade Press, 2020). 

Myths, history, animals and childhood trauma swirl in and around this astonishing debut chapbook from Sue Watling. She leads us by the hand through the uncertainties of life, through love and emptiness. To misquote a poem from Sue – ‘her…skin invites us in’. A beautiful, unsettling read that left me wanting more. 

Lynn Valentine, author of Life’s Stink and Honey (Cinnamon Press, 2021). @dizzylynn 

I was drawn in from the opening poem in Sue Watling’s assured debut, which brings to life historical and mythological characters including women pirates, figurines of Venus, Norse gods, and Old Testament judges. Her language is as sparse and elemental as the landscape her work inhabits, where nature is the silent spectator to tender moments of fleeting connection. 

Susan Darlington author of Never Wear White (Alien Buddha Press, 2022) and Traumatropic Heart (Selcouth Station Press, 2021). @S_sanDarlington  


Review of Precious Mettle by Sarah Wallis

There’s much to like in Precious Mettle by Sarah Wallis. For starters, the title is an interesting play on words, one which reflects many of the themes to be discovered in this book. These are poems about survival in a world which is constantly changing yet also repetitive. Different generations can find themselves facing similar circumstances through relationships and events which may be rewarding or challenging, sometimes both. The core meaning of mettle is resilience or the ability to survive no matter what life throws our way. We need this, just as we need the natural world around us and all of its surprises, often hidden beneath our feet. There are so wonderful images of survival in this book.

The Persephone Room shows a beautiful vision of Hades with …stucco walls in plain washed pink, where silhouetted trees are dotted precious / with bright, gold, pomegranates / spaced in time like planets… Here, beauty is darkened with a hollow promise and a candlelit supper …ever a trick / to catch a girl on a darkling promise. In a perfect example of how less can be more, the relationship between Persephone and her mother Demeter is left until the final lines;

And somewhere over and above the adventuring,

the keen of a mother’s six-month spaced grief.

The Midas Girl reinterprets the legend of king Midas, cursed to turn everything he touched into gold, with a contemporary account of the narrator being injected with gold, a treatment once used for inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis. The poem begins with one of Sarah’s wonderful first lines; I am more precious now, stock rising with each injection as I take on more treasure, a pirate’s gleam.  The scientist is turning her …into an ingot / and with rude delight compare / soaring notes as traders might… If I were to be weighed / and sold I would amount to more / than the sum of myself.

The wonderful Origin Story is a clever re-positioning of the tale of Iris, ancient Greek messenger of the gods, who has been captured by early man. As Iris struggles to escape, she tears her rainbow skirts and releases their colours in a beautiful re-imagining of the creation of rainbows.

…but the man told the other men
of the mountains and they drew down
the rainbow with a spell, held to her skirts
and fixed her into the earth forever

…so the singing continued
of the seven colours sown into the mountain…

By definition, myth contains unprovable mysteries. They offer us narrative stories without evidence and Sarah makes wonderful use of the spaces contained within them, gaps where a poet’s imagination can soar. There are poems about the four excavated golden bronze age hats, and the Nebra sky disc, made of bronze, gold and copper; artefacts about which far more is unknown than known. Subjects like these, where exact origins and meanings remain a mystery, are ideal subjects for poetry, and Sarah is adept at re-examining them through fresh contemporary eyes.

My favourite poems include How the Pearl Became with its tripartite structure, each section taking an alternative approach to the creation and cultural significance of pearls, and The World Stands Still to Weep with its wonderful opening line; Zero point zero zero two five grams – is the weight or a tear. It’s a line to remember, as are so many in this poem including how each tear is clear and perfectly formed as snowflakes make lone / journeys of sorrow…

Sarah writes amazing first lines.  I remember a workshop which examined the importance of opening lines as tools of attraction and there are many wonderful examples in this collection.  I particularly liked My father kept shares in a Columbian goldmine (aurum meum) / but wouldn’t allow me to keep a goldfish (carassius auratus) from Latin for Goldfish and The girl speaks with fluency and easy / breath on the stage in Liquidity. In each case, I was immediately drawn into what followed.

Latin for Goldfish by Samira Mian

For me, there were two outstanding poems. A Box of Opal Fish with its jeweller’s workshop in Shanghai which reeks of green tea and pink roses, incongruous / and well past blown, clinging on, a death scent hangs about their skirts…How could anyone not want to know what follows this! Also, My mother is an Aviary stayed with me long after I first read it. In this poem, a mother is reimagined as birds merged with more personal memories, and concludes;

My mother is an aviary
all lapis lazuli
all kingfisher blue

the feline and the feathered
find an all-weather arc. And she is my mother,
an ear on the phone and a beacon in the dark.

This poem left me thinking how all mothers can be described as aviaries, with their characters and personalities likened to a variety of different birds. For me, this poem is both original and thought-provoking, offering an excellent insight into Sarah’s poetic eye and intuition.

Precious Mettle contains poems about the survival of myth, objects, and humans coping with difficulty. Every time I turned a page, I was wondering what I’d find next and was never disappointed. We all need individual mettle. The stamina to survive is indeed a precious gift, and these poems remind you of shared life experiences or, more importantly, different ways of seeing. Sometimes, when life gets hard, all we need to do is change our viewpoint, or be reassured we are not alone, and Sarah’s poetry achieves both of these in many remarkable ways.

Precious Mettle is published by Alien Buddha Press. It follows a long line of publications including How to Love the Hat Thrower and Medusa Retold. Each is worth exploring but, if you are new to Sarah’s work, Precious Mettle offers an ideal place to start.

Sarah Wallis is a poet and playwright, based in Scotland, UK, since moving from Yorkshire in 2019. Theatrical residencies include Leeds Playhouse and Harrogate Theatre, as well as work for Leeds Fringe. Sarah’s blog can be found here and Sarah tweets as @wordweave

Never Wear White by Susan Darlington

image showing the front cover of the poetry collection Never Where White

Poetry is a great medium for opening up personal experiences. In Never Wear White Susan Darlington writes with rare honesty about the transitions of a woman’s life, sharing them with great skill and elegance. Many poems in this collection will resonate. Readers may recall their first period, attempts to conceive, or challenging relationships with mother figures. This is what good poetry does so well. Susan makes the collection personal while also touching on the universal, leaving space for readers to insert their own identities. It’s an achievement that demonstrates great accomplishment.

The origin of individual poems and their details often remain secret but for me, this collection had an autobiographical feel. Transition is a key theme. The book moves through childhood to adolescence, arriving at adulthood with all the pain of lost hope and relationships, then finally reaching acceptance. I loved the structuring of this passage through time.

black and white image showing a baby's hand curled around an adult sized finger

The first four poems (A Mother’s Love, The Storm’s Prophecy, Raw Material and The Encounter) are set in childhood. The images are raw and visceral, for example, this birth description in A Mother’s Love.

When mother was scooped out
I pounded with my reddened fists
against her limpid emptiness,
screamed out for more! more
and was starved from her womb.

In Raw Material a child is constructed through a series of images. These include a pair of fabric legs that are crudely stitched / with lengths of blood specked thread… dimpled and battle-scarred plastic arms… and a railway track spine attached with a chain of safety pins. Strong visual images like these can be found throughout the collection.

The first life transition is described in Visits From my Future Self where the narrator meets someone who borrowed her voice and stole her possessions, before gifting a razer blade with instructions on how to play her game: / to draw lines down our arms until white was red. This line gave me the shivers!

image sowing a red liquid spiralling in a glass of water

Carrie moves the collection to early experiences of menstruation. The poem begins with the shame of a woman’s body / through my mother’s handwritten notes written to excuse me from showers and swimming.  The lines took me back to a time when the possession and passing across of notes like these felt like the equivalent of shouting from the rooftops that you had your period. Susan shares the universal fear that everyone can smell the iron of my blood and see the stain seeping into my skirt’s fabric and dribbling down the inside of my thigh. Experiences like these are frighteningly common, with the worries made worse when they occur during adolescence, a time when many girls can feel ill-prepared to cope with difference.

The subject of menstruation has been framed by social constructions, old as time, and further reinforced through cultural and religious conceptions of menstrual blood as the source of fear and uncleanliness. The final line of Carrie aptly sums up this confusion as young girls learn to …absorb a shame we don’t understand.

image showing a sad face drawn on red card and held up infront of a seater person, obscuring their face.

The collection also deals with infertility. Society has still not learned how to approach childlessness in ways which are warm and supportive.  It’s Alright addresses miscarriage; Blue Line is the struggle to conceive and Not Quite shares the shock diagnosis of early menopause. There’s still a social expectation that women will have children at some point in their lives. When this is not possible, for whatever reason, other people can struggle to deal with the reality of the situation, leading to tensions between individual experience and wider expectations. Susan’s poems capture the conflict in ways which are raw and visceral, at times drawing on wider folklore and fairytale to emphasise the difficulties.

The Encounter has the stunning opening line The whale swallowed my mother / when she was just a child.  In this poem, the mother adorned her clothes / with tiny, silver air bubbles / that burst under my cheek / when she held me close and sang the siren’s call in the bath before cleaning the seaweed tidemark from the tub. The Unkindness tells of a mother cutting off the child’s plaits and attaching them to her own head …with pins / that made her scalp bleed before she runs off into the darkening thicket without a backwards glance

image whosing a dark forest in the light of a setting sun

The supernatural contrasts with realist observation of day-to-day life in Sensible Shoes and Ammonia Afternoons but even here, there’s a sense of something sinister, alongside a difficult relationship with a mother, who might have secretly hoped for a daughter to share her own life with. The poem concludes with something many daughters will recognise:

Because I am not that daughter.
And sometimes I can’t help but think
that I’m a disappointment to you.

The final poem The Art of Childlessness deals with coming to terms with what a diagnosis of early menopause can mean and ways to deal with it.

It’s not about being child-less…

…It’s not about being less of anything.
It’s about being child-free.

Free to spend time dancing….

Finding your own rhythms….

Knowing that no matter what,
alone, you are complete.

Being female can be messy on multiple levels. Susan’s fearless poems break down the walls of secrecy surrounding not only menstruation and miscarriage, but also the difficult heartbreak of infertility. The intriguing use of folklore contributes towards making this a unique and compelling collection, one which will take the reader back through memories of their own encounters with similar issues and will stay around in the days and weeks afterwards.  The realism of female biology remains a largely taboo subject. Powerful poetry collections, such as Never Wear White are much needed to shine a light in the dark corners of such universal experiences.

Susan Darlington can be found on Twitter at

Never Wear White is published by Alien Buddha Press

head and shoulders image of Susan Darlington

Heaving with the dreams of strangers – what happens next?

front cover for the poetry collection Heaving with the dreams of strangers

Still a bit giddy over this!

Earlier in the year, I submitted 20 poems to the annual Dreich Chapbook Slims competition, alongside over 200 other applications. It was accepted as one of four winners and Heaving with the dreams of strangers is now in print, available from Dreich

image showing the poets appearing at the event Six poets in search of an audience on July 22nd 2022

Friday 22nd July, 7.00 on Zoom, will be my first chance to read from the collection. The event is called Six poets in search of an audience and includes other Dreich Chapbook winners, as well as those recently published by Alien Buddha Press.

Tickets are free and can be booked through Eventbright at this link The registration page also contains more about the participants themselves.

Others at the event are as follows:

image shows the dashboard of wordpress

Getting published by Dreich has been a great experience. Everything went smoothly, thanks to editor, Jack Caradoc, who was incredibly supportive, as well as patient, with last-minute changes to the proof copy. No matter how closely you read something, having a break almost inevitably results in seeing it differently – such as replacing a comma with a full stop, changing a line break or reverting to a previously used title etc.

Something I didn’t anticipate was the question of what happens next?

I like to leave poems to rest for a few months before going back to edit them. Heaving with the dreams of strangers consists of poems written over the past two years, with many revisits during that time.  I was feeling I’d ‘used up’ most of my ‘best’ ones.

image shows the front cover design for Thetis
early draft cover design for Thetis

My other primary work is Thetis, a poetic narrative retelling the Trojan War through the eyes of the mother to Achilles. Thetis is currently at the design stage and due to be published later this year. How do I follow either Heaving with the dreams of strangers or continue with the Greek myths which influenced Thetis?

The short answer is – I don’t know!

I have some ideas but would be really interested in thoughts from other writers who have recently experienced their first ‘success’ in terms of publication.

These past few months I’ve felt blocked. Does writing poetry always go through phases of inspiration and uncreativity? The books feel like the first steps on a ladder, but I’m not sure what comes next – especially when I seem to have hit a brick wall!

image shows a landing in office workspace

I left work in 2019; a reluctant decision. Concerns about age were reinforced by six months of unsuccessful job hunting, confirming the suspicion that women can find it hard to get back into the workplace.  In the end, I decided to see the end of my formal academic career as a gift in terms of having time to write and travel.

Within six months we were into the first Covid lockdown. All travel stopped. Alongside my allotment and newly arrived honeybees, there was only writing left, but wanting and doing are sometimes worlds apart.

In 2020, I began a series of prompt-a-day online poetry courses, to which I owe everything because they gave me the structure and discipline I needed.  I’ve said this before but am happy to say it again – thank you to Wendy Pratt @wondykitten, Angela Carr @adreamingskin and Jim Bennett @poetrykit for the poems which went into Heaving with the dreams of strangers, and to Felix Hodcroft, Sue Wilsea, Jane Sudworth and Helen Birmingham for the germination and final production of Thetis. Also, Paul Brookes @PaulDragonwolf1  whose questions made me sit and think seriously about the role of writing in my life for a Wombwell Rainbow online interview.

image shows a launderette

At the moment I’m taking the Radicalising the Domestic online course with Wendy Pratt. This looks at the often-ignored subject of women’s life at home, and involves looking back, something I’ve never been good at. The course is stirring the nascent idea of using these times, if only to make sense of them and maybe reassure others they are not alone in missing out on the stereotypical image of a happy childhood. As one of the group posted in response to an early draft of one of my poems ‘Quite relieved (and a bit sad) that a lot of us on here don’t have the best of childhood memories…’

Classic psychoanalysis suggests the best way to deal with a dysfunctional past is to revisit rather than shut it off. Since I began thinking about the next collection. I’ve been wondering if I can be brave enough to unlock the double-barred and bolted doors. I have a title, Loose change, and am beginning to think I might have found what I’ve been looking for!

Click the Pay Now button below to buy a copy of Heaving with the dreams of strangers through PayPal.

image shows the contents of a chest wich includes a pile of loose change




The tragedy of Thetis

The first draft of the cover for Thetis

In 2022, my poetic narrative about Thetis, immortal sea nymph and mother to Achilles, will be published. Thetis is an immortal goddess who learns what it means to be human, and the narrative follows her life, before and after the Trojan war. Stories of gods and goddesses have always fascinated me, and it’s both exciting (and a bit scary) to think of Thetis finally becoming available in print.

Homer’s epic poem, The Iliad, tells us about the final weeks of the Trojan war and Thetis plays an active part in all the major plot points. Yet she remains a peripheral figure, despite her power to intervene with the gods, which is evident throughout.

The story of Thetis is a tragic one. Raped and forced into marriage with the mortal King Peleus of Phthia, Thetis was initially a reluctant mother. In some versions outside of Homer, she killed her first six children, before Achilles was born. This son was different and Thetis adored him, doing all she could to prevent his dying young as foretold by the Fates. Efforts to save Achilles included dipping him in the River Styx to make him invulnerable, and sending him to Skyros, disguised as a maid for the Princess Deidamia, to avoid having to fight at Troy.

The attempt to hide Achilles failed when Odysseus tricked him into revealing his identity. At Troy, Achilles died from an arrow shot through his heel. This was the spot where Thetis held him in the river between her finger and thumb, when he was a baby, an action which inadvertently led to his death. Tragedy is defined as great suffering, destruction, and distress and the story of Thetis is tragic by anyone’s standards, yet Thetis has rarely been a central topic of attention.

Thetis and Peleus

My version of the life of Thetis is being published by Esplanade Press, an independent publisher based in Scarborough, and run by Scarborough poet Felix Hodcroft.  Part of the narrative was due to be performed at Rotunda Nights, a monthly poetry and music event run by Scarborough Museums Trust, but was cancelled during the first lockdown. We still hope to arrange a performance of some of the most vivid excerpts during a launch event or events. Throughout the preparation stages, a constant topic of discussion has been the extent to which we can assume – or not – the reader’s awareness and knowledge of ancient Greek myth.

Classical writers are themselves divided on how to read and interpret ancient stories. There are no original copies so our understanding relies on fragments and references, often made many centuries later. I’ve used the Iliad, alongside other classical works which refer to Thetis, as a foundation for the narrative.

5th century BC water jar depicting the sack of Troy

The Iliad was an oral poem, thought to have been first written in 800 BC, which tells of events alleged to have taken place around 1200 BC. The ruins of a great city, believed to be Troy, have been excavated at Hissarlik in northern Turkey, as have the remains of palaces at Sparta and Mycenae, thought to belong to the king brothers Menelaus and Agamemnon.

Findings suggest the war between the Greeks and Trojans has some historical basis, but Homer’s epic is inextricably entwined with myths about the Greek pantheon of gods and goddesses. Thetis is set in a world where mortals and immortals live side by side and the gods think nothing of interfering in the lives of humans. This makes her story full of poetic potential while the gaps in our knowledge are a gift for the creative imagination.

Thetis and Hephaestus

The eldest of 50 sea nymph sisters known as the Nereids, Thetis’s parents were Nereus, often called the Old Man of the Sea, and Doris, goddess of freshwater rivers and springs. Thetis’s grandmother was Gaia, earth goddess and her grandfather was Uranos. Both were Titan gods, overthrown by the Olympians, led by Zeus and Poseidon.

Thetis has provenance and a long history. Responsible for saving Hephaestus when Hera threw him from Olympus, Thetis also supported Zeus when Olympus was in rebellion, gave sanctuary to Dionysius when he fled from Thrace, and helped Jason and his Argonauts to navigate through the Clashing Rocks.

Images of Dionysus, the God of wine, and Jason travelling through the Clashing Rocks

All this took place before the famous Judgement of Paris, where Paris, the youngest prince of Troy, was forced by Zeus to choose the most beautiful goddess. Aphrodite, Athena and Hera were in competition with each other but it was the goddess of love, Aphrodite, who bribed Paris with the promise that the most beautiful woman in the world, would fall in love with him. The affair between Paris and Helen, wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, caused Menelaus and his brother Agamemnon, to go to war against the Trojans. During the judgement, Paris gave Aphrodite a golden apple. Inscribed with the words to the fairest. This was bought by Eris, the goddess of strife, to the wedding of Thetis and Peleus.

There she is again!

Detail from the 5th century BC Francois Vase showing the wedding of Thetis and Peleus 

The Trojan War has fascinated many writers and the 21st century has seen a range of published books inspired by the wars alongside the pantheon of ancient greeks gods and goddesses.

I love them all.

They include The Song of Achilles and Circe by Madelaine Millar, The Silence of the girls by Pat Barker, A thousand ships by Natalie Haynes (who also presents the Radio 4 series Stands Up for the Classics), Achilles by Elizabeth Cook, The Peneliopad by Margaret Atwood, and Ransom by David Malouf. There are historical non-fiction books such as Michael Wood’s In Search of the Trojan Wars, Brittany Hughes‘s Helen of Troy and In Search of Homer by Adam Nicholson, plus films; the Hollywood version told in Troy and the BBC series Troy, Fall of a City. Poems inspired by the Trojan war include Christopher Logue’s War Music and Seamus Heany’s The Cure at Troy. All these provide evidence of a continuing fascination. The women of Troy have all recently been revisited but so far, Thetis has not yet played a central role.

From the BBC drama Troy Fall of a City

I’m curious as to why so little about Thetis has come down through history. She is sometimes mentioned in passing so maybe it’s because few writers seem to have joined up the dots.

Esplanade Press will be publishing Thetis in the summer of 2022 and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to raise her status and position her centre stage. In my mind, this is where Thetis has always deserved to be.

Thetis asking Hephaestus to make new amour for Achilles

The yin and yang of poetry submissions

image showing scrabble letters spelling Do not give up

Dreich have selected my collection Heaving with the Dreams of Strangers for publication as one of their Chapbook Slims. Now, like eggs, these poems are resting in the Dreich nest. The acceptance email from Jack Caradoc last month was a reminder of how acceptance is the plus side of rejection. The two go hand in hand. They’re the Yin and Yang of the whole submission experience, and I’ve been reflecting again on the whole process of attempting to release work into the public sphere.

Rejection is integral to the publishing endeavour. But if you don’t try, the chances of seeing your work in print are zero. It has to be done. My rejections far outway the acceptances so although the Publications page on this blog looks healthy, it comes at a cost.

Rejection hurts.

Imposter Syndrome loves it.

When a poem, or group of poems, are refused, it brings back the early fears of never being good enough or not having anything worthwhile to say. It’s something all writers and poets have to deal with.

image showing a poster about imposter syndrome

I’d tried submitting to collection calls before but with no success.  This time I took a different approach.  I’d previously submitted poems which formed a narrative on a single theme. This time, I opted for individual poems but, as I worked through the selection process, I found myself bringing together work which had more connections than I first realised.

Almost without exception, the poems deal with myth and legend with a touch of magical realism. They were less about the personal and more about ways in which past can connect with the present. The value of mythical thinking is the lack of hard evidence that the characters and happenings have truths There’s no confirmation that any of it is real in the way history claims to be, and it’s this lack of empiricism that creates spaces where readers can bring their own interpretations. At least, that’s how I understand working within the area.

Myths fascinate me, and the acceptance from Dreich feels like confirmation after all the silence. I re-read an earlier post on  Rejection Blues, and thought it worth including some reminders of my thoughts from a year ago.

The standard advice on rejection is to remember it’s the words, not yourself, which is being rejected. The poem might not fit the theme or the editors had hundreds of submissions for just a handful of spaces. This inevitably means saying no to good work.

image showing posters of the word No

For most writers, it takes a significant amount of bravery to put yourself out there. Art comes from within. It’s influenced by our ways of being and seeing the world so there’s no getting around the fact rejection can feel personal. However, you have to find ways to deal with it because not submitting isn’t an option for an aspiring writer.

I’ve learned to think of rejections as:

  • opportunities to give poems another polish then resubmit to a different publication
  • evidence I’ve shifted from having aspirations to having completed work
  • a sign I’ve become a writer because I have my own rejection stories to tell
  • time to change my negative thinking; instead of reject I now use decline in my records, somehow it feels kinder 🙂
  • confirmation I’ve upped my game. You have to be in it to win it and the only way to get published is to submit!

Image of the quote Poetry is the shadow cast by our streetlight imaginations by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Poetry is one of the hardest genres to work in when it comes to pleasing people. Writing a poem involves both art and skill but also a lot of effort to make your point using the least amount of words alongside style and presentation on the page. It’s a tough call and I’m now realising the bar is set even higher.

How do you follow a collection?

In particular, if it contains what you think are some of your best poems, those you’ve worked with on and off for a long time. The only answer is to carry on doing whatever inspired these poems in the first place. For me, it’s joining online poetry courses and workshops where you write to prompts. The results might not be perfect poems but they’re foundations to work on. Without these incentives. many of the twenty poems in the chapbook would not have been started, never mind finished. So it’s thanks to the course mentors for their time and attention. I’d recommend looking up the following; Wendy Pratt @wondykitten, Angela T Carr @dreamingskin and Jim Bennett @thepoetrykit. Also, it’s thanks to everyone else on these courses for sharing and commenting on the group’s work.

In the face of rejection, the best advice of all is to carry on observing the world around you and find the ways you feel most comfortable with when describing it. It helps to get into a writing habit. It doesn’t matter what you produce at the time, it’s more about the doing. Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way suggests writing every morning in a random stream of consciousness. Get your thoughts down onto paper and often a single idea or phrase will appear which you know you’ll be able to use in the future. Dorothea Brand in Becoming a Writer says you need to make regular appointments with your muse because it’s only through the action of writing that she will appear.

Most of all, don’t give up.

Keep writing, reading, taking workshops, and have the confidence to go through the submissions process.

One day it might happen, and then all the hard work will feel worthwhile!

image showing a single person silhouetted on a hill in front of a sunset