Writing

The Book of London

4

I am always on the run. I have lived in four different places in the last four years. am tired. I moved from Livorno and my University in Florence to Oslo for a semester, then back to Tuscany again. I went to Bronxville, a small town 30 minutes away from New York City, and then back to Italy. And then I moved to London, where I stayed for one year and a half.

Now I am back to Livorno. My last days in London were hectic, as I had to pack, say goodbye to my old job, complete a one-week work experience at HHB Literary Agency and, of course, see my friends for the last time. I have been thinking about London in the last few days, right after the emotion of being home fade away. I am spending my time with my loved ones in the places that I know and love, but London keeps coming back. I have the impression that it will always be.

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The first emotion I feel when I think about London, even before nostalgia or sadness, is gratitude. I don’t think I would ever be able to express my gratitude for all the people I met in this amazing year and a half. I would like to hug all the amazing people I met, my flatmates, my friends, my professors. My classmates and friends in London always did their best to help me with my writing and my English. They read my shit and gave me feedback. They listened to my clumsy English and corrected me if I needed it. Now I am braver and I know for sure that my grasp on the language is improved, thanks to them.

Almost all of my luggage is unpacked and settled again in my room in Livorno. But there is a bag, full of notes, memories, pictures and stuff that I am afraid to open. I am afraid it may mix up with the life I have here and I am sure I’ll start crying when I open the notes I received, the presents and gifts and the love all the people I met showed to me. And then, of course, I am scared of going back to London with my mind, and fall in a blurry place. But I just can’t leave everything there, in the dusty bag. I need to take everything out and, possibly, write my book of London. Stick all the notes and pictures and memories and the songs I listened to and the stories I wrote and the films I saw and the small things of life that I am so afraid to forget when I’ll leave Livorno again. Because I will.

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I left London three weeks ago and I am still living in some strange place where I can smell toasts from Pret in the morning. Where sudden gusts of wind mess my hair up in the tube station and everything goes too fast. A weird, blurry place where people are always busy and girls go to work stumbling on high heels.
Here in Livorno, instead, the wind on my face smells like the sea, even when I am not on the shore. The buzz of the too many mopads pierces my ears constantly and the food oozes with oil and garlic and flavour. I have eaten the best Cacciucco of my life. I have spent 20 euros to eat eight different dishes at dinner – something that is simply impossible in London.
I have written a new story about London, because I miss this huge part of me so much that sometimes Livorno seems like a temporary place. Maybe tomorrow I am going to prepare my suitcase and head off to Stratford again. I will take a long walk in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and go shopping at Westfield, buy some shit at Poundland and decide what to eat for dinner while shopping at Sainsbury’s – always the same tasteless shit, I am afraid.
I will hear guys calling their pals “mates” instead of “bimbi” and I will smile when I’ll enter a pub, with the smell of ale and old carpet that is so vivid and alive to me now that it seems like I have never really left.
And when I am in this blurry place in my mind, missing London and thinking about this cheesy shit, I will think about Livorno, about the smell of jasmine in my garden, the threatening gazes of seagulls scanning the moats for some pigeons to slaughter. My hometown, with the accent that I know so well and makes me laugh everytime.
I have been living in too many places in the last 4 years and I miss them all. The world where everyone is scattered, trying to find their own path even if far away from loves ones, is a tough one.
I left a piece of my heart in London and I can’t wait to visit again.
It is not home now, but will always be anyway.

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Writing

Finding Your Writing Spot

4

These days have been hectic. I have some incredible news to tell, but I need the last official paperwork to be completed, so I do not want to say it yet. Just because I feel like I may spoil everything. Anyway, I decided I needed to explore the city more, especially Stratford, the place where I lived. Living in London wasn’t always easy, but Stratford made my stay better, and still does. It is not the most elegant and fancy part of London, but it is home now. Therefore, I want to write about my favourite writing spots in Stratford.

I am deeply convinced that a writer should find a good writing spot. I have tried to write at home, but it does not work out that well, unless it is very late at night and everyone is sleeping. Which is funny, because I live in a house where people work and are always extremely quiet, but there something about writing in the night that makes me focus. It makes my mind sharp. Many writers say that walking helps them seeing everything from a different perspective. I do not like doing physical activity unless it involves two naked bodies, but I guess walking, running and doing sport in general is helpful for the writer who likes to eat and needs to prevent stretch marks or, in general, getting fat. Like I do.

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Anyway, these are the two places that I discovered – and loved – the most as my writing spot. The first is the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. When you leave the big-shopping-centre Stratford behind, you will discover an amazing park that is full of beautiful memories. Stratford was brought to new life when it came to organising and structuring the Olympic games, and this park is probably the best achievement in this changes. It surrounds the beautiful Olympic Stadium, where the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games took place. You remember it, right? Beautiful. It was directed by Danny Boyle and there were some incredible guests. The stadium welcomes the West Ham now, and every Saturday Stratford station is quite crowded of all the supporters of the team.

Some weeks ago, I put my manuscript into a jute bag and decided to have a walk. My phone was dead – as it always is – and I just enjoyed the sun. It was a warm Sunday afternoon. I saw children playing in the funfair, tourists hiring bycicle and wandering around the parks. I looked at the canal. I found a spot, right in front of the stadium, on some wooden step. I took out my sunglasses and the manuscript, and I started reading until it got a bit too chilly and it was time to go home. That night, I felt better. I had walked and read. I had done everything I needed and I wanted to. A walk won’t probably prevent me from getting fat anyway, but I felt happy anyway.

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Stratford has another lovely place. I mean, it has many lovely places, but this is one of my favourite. It is the Theatre Royal Statford East square. The Theatre, this eccentric, beautiful red building, faces the square. Right in the middle, there is the statue of Joan Littlewood, who was a theatre director. Right next to the theatre, there is a cinema – Stratford East Picturehouse. And right opposite, in the middle of all this culture, a lovely cafe and restaurant called Gerry’s Kitchen. Here, you can have some amazing Italian pizza or incredible cakes. It is not expensive at all, and it is all furnished with very interesting, shabby pieces, and there are books scattered all around. Late in the evening, people come and have pizza, and, if you can resist to the temptation, it is simply perfectly good to write, read and edit with the smell of wood oven cooked pizza. I love writing while having a good mint tea – here it is actually really, really good – and some pastries.

Writing in a place that is not my room is inspiring. First, because it helps me realising that I actually took a decision to go out and work, so, if I waste my time by scrolling my Facebook timeline or chatting with my friends, I will feel much worse than if I did it at home. Finding a writing spot outside – either indoor or outdoor – makes you feel useful. And it makes you enjoy the city or town where you live, which is always good for your inspiration.

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Writing

Doing an MA in Creative Writing

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The MA is over. We have completed all the classes and I submitted the final dissertation. I will get my degree on the 25th of March, and University of Westminster will be far away from me. I feel like it is very far already. Still, I try to consider myself a student. I try to see me as one of those person that never stop studying, reading, analisying, examining, and, of course, writing. It really seems like I opened this blog just yesterday. I was writing down everything that happened during Creative Practice classes, summarising the books and writing about our visits around London. It seemed like yesterday I was wearing my fur and my backpack and walking down Liverpool Street, ready to discover the city.

The debate about studying Creative Writing at academic level is very much alive, and many writers are either very positive about it or just think it is a waste of time. I think that, after having studied in an environment that is so strongly academic as University of Florence and at University of Westminster, where I have mainly done creative work, I have something to say about it – and that is, that studying creative writing at uni will not make you become a published author. I did not believe this was going to happen in the first place. When I decided to study creative writing, I wanted to do so because I felt this was the subject I knew I wanted to deepen in academia and that maybe one day I would be able to teach.

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So, no, a creative writing academic background is not essential, if your ultimate dream is to be a published writer. That being said, I strongly encourage every passionate writer to go on and do an MA. This kind of academic experience will make your life as a writer challenging. It will help you understand that you don’t have to be afraid of other people’s judgement and opinions on your work, and while some feedbacks are valuable and will really help you improve your writing, some others are not that important, because there will always be people who simply don’t like your work. Being humble but also confident is extremely important. An MA will give you friends and people who will read your work, edit and give you feedback for free, just because they like what you write. They will look at you as a friend who has the same objective that they have, but they will not see your relationship as a competitive one, because basically everyone writes very differently.

During an MA in Creative Writing, you’ll seeyour weaknesses and your strengths, you will meet amazing writers and professors that will guide you in this difficult path. Some may be strict, because they want you to get used to the harsh life of the writer. In reality, writers get refusals and negative answers all the time. The most important thing is to keep on writing and keep on improving your work, reading and never giving up. Becoming a published writer needs talent and committment, which is something an MA cannot really give you. It can help shape them, giving them a direction, but you have the main responsibility. And this is where, at the end of the academic path, I want to start my life as a struggling author. As they taught me at the beginning of the MA, there are so many opportunities in London.

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Poetry

Obstruction #10: Architecture and Body

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Obstruction #10 was the response to us wondering around the Southbank Centre. Ron told us to spend 40 – 45 minutes in and out of the space. He told us to go outside, to visit at least three floors of the building and to ride at least 2 or 3 of the amazing lifts. He told us not to talk among us or at the phone, and to pay attention to what surrounded us, for example the building materials, the textures that we saw, the architecture. He told us to consider the bodies that we move in and out, to overhear conversations, to take pictures and wonder what everything we saw reminded us of, to constantly wonder what was coming up to mind by watching the place.

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Then we had to come back into the building, choose a place around the floor where we were gathered and try to write a poem, keeping writing until Ron would stop us. These were the guidelines:

Form/Shape

  1. Include overheard language, something you encountered in the last 45 minutes.
  2. The first line needs to be interesting, immediate.
  3. Try to begin in the middle of things, a shocking “in medias res” (for example “in the fog”, where we are already into something, or using “you know”, to address someone directly).

Content

  1. Include a monument, a memorial, a bridge, a building from the past and one from the present.
  2. Compare the sound of the Thames and the outside to the sound of the movement of the body.

Action

  1. How may the piece move? Give a “wandering” rhythm.
  2. Include a rise in your writing.

Here is my attempt.

 

10th of November

First Draft Version

*

You know when you spend

a whole day worrying

and wondering what’ll come next

And then you see something

And laugh until it hurts, until

small, wet wrinkles form around your eyes?

A sore, sick laugh from the back of

your throat. That’s this morning.

There’s a new exhibition

at the Southbank Centre.

About students’ idea on how to

Enlight the Thames after dark.

Neon purple lightbulbs popping out on black.

*

*

There is a photojournalism exhibition

At the 2nd floor. Big themes,

no doubt, emotions flow.

Racial issues, cancer, sexual assault.

Syrian refugees and civil rights.

But today there’s another urgency

Read what people think today.

Thoughts about lights on the Thames.

How does light make you feel?

Peaceful. Just safe.

Do you think London bridges are

an important public space?

Of course I do. Make them beautiful.

What’s your favourite bridge in London?

No Trump.

*

*

People’s faces on the tube are concealed

by Hillary Clinton’s high cheekbones on

greysh newspaper pages.

A guy shouted to an American

friend, he’s going to rule the world.

No Trump, scribbled on a piece

of paper pasted on a wall, among

students’ ideas about enlightening

the river that churns and whirls

as my stomach did on Wednesday morning

when the sad news was announced.

*

*

Still, The White House is solid.

The Thames and Hudson and Nile

keep flowing despite the dangerous currents.

There’s a stillness in marble and

water. The world needs that stillness.

A deep breath. Try not to move for

a second. We’ll see you in January,

when another shitty year begins.

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I wanted to write a poem about the American elections because, even if I am not an American citizen, I know what happened will influence the next years big time. I am speechless and I really do not know what to expect. I am curious but also hopeless. We will see what happens.

Poetry

The City as “Home” to Expats

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The catalyst for this session was the Preamble from Feeling as a Foreign Language: The Good Strangeness of Poetry by Alice Fulton, which I about how poets try to build a language that is both foreign and available to readers. Each poet, she says, creates an “expatriate space […], where things are freshly felt because they are freshly said”.

The poet creates a good strangeness. She uses this word, unheimlich, that translates literally as “unhomelike” but is understood to mean “uncanny”. She says that it also suggests the undomesticated and eccentric (from the Greek, meaning “outside the centre”). To be eccentric is to be at some remove from the cozy hearth of the familiar and well-received.

This made me think about my own writing. I always try to be very clear and avoid to be obscure, but poetry means also to not be too blatant. Everything must not always be explained, and sometimes being a little obscure is absolutely fine.

The first poems we had to read were Early Morning Swim and What I Think about When I’m Swimming by Hannah Lowe. Ron asked us what we noticed about this poems. I thought that it was interesting that the author never uses the full stop apart from after the third line, the middle of the poem and the very end. The line of description never ends with a full-stop. The interesting thing about the use of the full-stop after Sambuca, in the middle of the poem, is that it goes on with a contrast, opening the next line with the important word “now”. The speaker walks through places she knows really well and which makes her remember her past.

It was interesting to consider the formal choices, the words the author used at the end of line. There is a specific reason why every line ends in that place, and it is important to take this into consideration. The scarce use of full-points may suggest a sense of wandering.

I love the structure of What I Think About When I’m Swimming and how the author plays with the layout. Both poems play around the action of swimming. The sense of the water surrounding the body of the speaker influences the rhythm of the lines. I was also very fascinated by the poem Brixton Market by Malika Booker. Like her mother, the speaker tests every bit of vegetable, fish, meat, to make sure it’s read to be cooked and healthy. I found this scene very poetic. I had the chance to listen to it read aloud, and I really appreciated the sounds of the words the author used.

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The one that really amazed me was Conversation about Home (at the deportation centre), by Warsan Shire. It is a great poem about immigration. It is written in prose, so when I read it for the first time I was wondering if it was supposed to be a poem at all, but hearing it read by the author helped me realising that it had very strong and powerful sounds. The emotions really hit me. The line No one is home unless home is the mouth of a shark deeply struck me, just like I do not know where I’m going where I have come from is disappearing I am unwelcome and my beauty is not beauty here. The writer’s reading is a real performance, and her facial expressions are amazing. They represented the feeling of shame of not belonging that the poem expressed.

Another interesting poem was Investigation of Past Shoes, by Vahni Capilded. It is divided into four “chunks” and it is written in prose. Every chunk is about a time in her life and the shoes that represented that time. It was interesting to analyse the typography of this poem, how the paragraph were justified. The secret of this poem, Ron told us, is distillation: the portrait of a person, their whole life is represented by the shoes they used. One of my classmates was really confused by how poets can write about something as mundane as shoes. Again, this taught me a lot about the fact that everything can trigger poetry. This made me consider the choices I make about my own writing, the things I choose to include in my writing and about myself. Concerning this, Ron told us to read The Things Men Carry by Tim O’Brian, about the history of objects that men carried.

We also had the chance to read and to watch the performance of the poem Directions by Inua Ellams. The performance was heart-breaking. The description of the city, with its complexities, its sounds, its colours, and the analysis of small details that everyone who has lived in big cities can easily see in their mind, create a unique atmosphere. Again, the exploration of details, even the most mundane ones, gives a great strenght to the poem. The same happens for Persistence of Vision with Gwendolyne Brooks by Solmaz Sharif, where the speaker, from a car, sees the lonely spaces, their features and pecularities. The atmosphere was completely different from the poem by Inua Ellams, but they had a very important thing in common: a deep sense of place.

All these poems are about the city as home to expats. While the one by Warsan Shire is specifically about immigration, the other all say a lot about how places and cities can be distant from our culture and life and how can embrace them at the same time. The poet needs to build up a world and a language that goes out of our comfort zone, that brings us outside our normal sense of imagination and creativity. Facing the challenges of the big city will always take us out of our comfort zone, just like writing poetry.

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Poetry

Obstruction #6: Obsessions Stuck in History

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Session #4 started with Ron asking us what are the obsessions that ignite our writing. One of the catalysts, Richard Hugo, said that our obsessions lead us to our writing and to our vocabulary. Therefore, Ron asked us to list at least 10 obsessions or fascinations of the moment. He told us to be very specific, repeating the mantra no ideas but in things. We could not just say “love”, but say what is that we love. These are mine. They are very mundane, but it’s the truth.

  • Nature documentaries with David Attenborough
  • Italian Ravioli for £1 at Sainsbury’s
  • My relationship with my boyfriend
  • David Foster Wallace
  • My literary group back in my hometown
  • Halloween
  • My best friend was in the place of the earthquake in Italy yesterday
  • People in the tube
  • Lit magazines
  • Email check

Then he asked us to say 10 words that sound/appear a lot in our writing.

  • Eyes
  • Swallow
  • Hands
  • Look
  • Silence
  • Fuck/bloody (swear words)
  • Veins
  • Say
  • Grip
  • Knuckles

This obstruction was interesting because we did not just write down this exercises and then went straight to write the poem. After these questions, we discussed the poems about history and then Ron asked us to go back to the lists and to choose on of the 10 words we use a lot in our writing. This is the list that came out of all our chosen words:

  • Ventricle
  • Schadenfreude (a German word that expresses the feeling of pleasure at someone else’s discomfort).
  • Eviscerate
  • Insomnia
  • Treachery
  • Snapped
  • Losing (as loss)
  • Silence
  • Tenderness
  • Ethereal

 

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*

Then, there was the moment to write the poem, Obstruction #6. These were the guidelines:

  1. Express contradiction, contrast, conundrum, dilemma.
  2. History is alive (dates, remembered places, names, memories, lyrics, facts…).
  3. Use one or more words from the lists above. Your vocabulary should appear.
  4. Future is dreamed, feared, imagined.
  5. Reckon with one of your obsessions. This must be the seed of the piece.

*

Here is the poem. It’s called Smoked Pancetta Ravioli. There are many things I don’t like in this draft. Other are important and means a lot to me, so I want to use them in my project to write other, better poems. The theme of migration is important. Other references are just a bit too cheesy and I don’t think they really fit the objective of the poem.

The last thing you may think about.

Before everything explodes.

Or falls down on you.

Yes, £1 Ravioli at Sainsbury’s.

It’s really as sad as that.

*

Policemen walk slowly around the tube station.

They carry weapons that seem

too heavy. Too difficult for them to use.

I try not to notice.

I do anyway.

*

On the 26th of October, 2016

The deep centre of Italy, somewhere

I’ve never been to

cages a big chunk of me.

*

And as I read David Foster Wallace on the tube

Surrounded by peope who look down at their own hands

My best friend is somewhere, probably tracing

lines and dots on the canvas

right at the centre of the earthquake.

*

It is really as simple as that: £1 Ravioli at Sainsbury’s.

I’ll have them for dinner. Giovanni Rana,

the best I could get. I miss Italy sometimes,

more often than I want.

*

I am okay. Policemen walk and try to smile at each other,

gripping their guns. I watch them.

A terrorist attack was avoided in Greenwich.

Thanks to special forces. Thanks.

*

But you can’t avoid everything. You can’t avoid earthquakes.

Italian media say it’s fine, no deaths.

Last earthquake, more than 200 died.

Italy were lucky this time.

A big chunk of me was lucky, this time.

*

My friend answers the phone.

She’s scared but she’s fine.

She’ll go to bed, put on her piijama, maybe

read David Foster Wallace. I will.

*

I miss her terribly as I miss

everyone. My boyfriend on the shores of Tuscany

my best friend in the greyish Helsinki

another looking over Toronto’s skyline

all scattered around like stones on the ground.

*

Migration is distance.

No one is safe.

Policemen in London’s tube screams the danger.

I could just think of the ravioli I’ll have

before everything squashes me.

*

We are far fro each other.

But this is the life we chose.

The price to pay to study, write, paint, play the flute.

We all hope our future will be our reward.

*

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Poetry

Obstruction #4: People in London

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Walker Evans is a famous photographer who depicted and represented many aspects of American life and society. In the title of his project Many are Called, he quotes the Bible: many are called, but few are chosen. Here, he photographed casual people in the subway in NY as they didn’t know they were photographed. He chose some of the pictures to shape the whole collection. In his talk Stare, Jeff Rosenheim (a curator at MET) describes Evans’ work and how he  thought that photograph was part of urban poetry, how photographs represented the closeness between people. Even if two persons are not interacting with each other, are not posing and they even don’t know each other, a photograph may create a bound that lasts forever.

The job of the photographer is to go through all their shots and choose the ones that represent their vision at best. In this case, staring is the key of being capable to see what lies in the depth of human relationships. It’s how a photographer, just as a painter or a writer or poet, needs to educate their eyes. Listen, eavesdrop: the basic concept of this project is that you’re not alone. No one is alone. Seeing, says Rosenheim, is a creative act, the creative person needs to be an apologetic voyeur. Being surrounded by so many different people is a gift to anyone who lives in a city and takes pleasure in our fellow men.

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At some point during class, Ron told us that the writer’s block does not exist anymore. There’s just simply no such thing. Inspiration can really be found everywhere. I personally believe that a writer cannot just simply wait for the inspiration – the only thing that will make you productive is sitting and writing down, even if the result is shit. On the other hand, a writer or a creative in general needs to learn how to stare and to observe, to draw inspiration from the real world in their writing. For session 3, in fact, Ron wanted us to submit a picture about a detail that showed London’s contradiction. I submitted a picture of a cheap tomb found in Abney Cemetery in Stoke Newington. All the graves are very old and made out of stone, and people can’t bury corpses there anymore, but last year someone decided to dedicate a small, chalk grave to Eric the Punk, the finest dog-walker of Stokey. No one took it out, even if it wasn’t allowed. It made me laugh so much. Ron told us that the poet Natalie Diaz collected pictures of things that spoke to her. When she went through her collection, she realised they were always about dead animals. This does not mean that she’s nuts, but can tell her a lot about what inspires her.

Referring to this and to find inspiration in the city, Ron wanted us to do something very special to let Obstruction #4 kick off. He wanted us to capture London as we see it now. He asked for us to leave the room and go around the place, to find something that spoke to us, look at people, capture something in language. Overlooked details that said something to us about the city. I did so. I went out the building and saw many different people. I walked around Regent Street and the small park behind, I entered a Pret and ordered a sandwich. I observed people who surrounded me. What struck me was really that everyone was looking at their cellphone. It didn’t matter what they were doing, they were all looking down at the screen. I know it seems quite banal to say it, but it’s really a great part of our society now. So, it inspired Obstruction #4.

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Obstructions:

  1. Use the second person you.
  2. Use polycromatic colours and texture
  3. Must be 14 lines long.
  4. Use present tense.

 

This is my attempt.

 

Home

Neon shines brightly on your smile.

You’re looking down at the screen,

so no one knows why you’re so happy.

Maybe your five grams of coke have just arrived.

Veins pump under the veil of your forehead.

Your skin is thin, subtle, like a shell left on the shore

By the sea.

Only, in London, the sea is just the blue of your tie.

You smile.

You walk inside a Pret for a coffee, where

you can find a smile broadening quite suddenly

on another face, as another you watches another screen.

You have long hair instead, a pink cosy sweater,

and maybe he texted you. Or maybe not, and you’re happy about it.

No one knows why you smile.

And there’s another you, all in black,

holding the phone in one hand, and in the other a fag.

People don’t know how you feel and why

But you laugh out loud anyway.

Tattoos climb up your wide shoulders.

Your colleagues, your boss, all the passers-by

Just don’t know why you smile.

Nor do the offices, concrete walls and glassy doors,

none of them know there’s someone,

somewhere else, that you call home.

 

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