Tag Archives: poetry

Overcoming alcohol and drug addiction to achieve a Master’s degree

Azad Ashim Sharma graduated in April with an MA in Creative and Critical Writing. Here he tells his remarkable story of life growing up, his battles with alcohol and substance misuse, starting a publishing company, and his aspirations for the future.

Azad Ashim Sharma celebrating on his graduation day

My childhood was strange in a way. I’ve come to look at it not through rose-tinted glasses or nostalgia, but through a sense of compassionate inquiry. Being raised in an intergenerational home deep in South London, I was co-parented by grandparents, who were political exiles from apartheid South Africa. My grandmother was a political activist and our family in South Africa are quite close to the anti-apartheid liberation movement.

Our family home was always busy: my younger brother is autistic, so we had a large care team. During my school years, I attended two local independent schools, and my brother, who is severely autistic, was home-schooled. I was bullied at school, which was really quite traumatic for me at the time. I sought solace in music and art from a young age and my most special childhood memories are of attending exhibitions with my mother.

My family’s love of reading certainly made its mark on me, as I went on to study BA English at the University of Sussex. After finishing my course, I knew I wanted to pursue a Master’s degree in Critical Theory at Sussex. Whilst I was on track for a distinction in 2015, my mental health deteriorated. I had returned to London to look after my brother who was unwell and under-supported due to austerity. I came home to support my mother with his care and all three of us were also trying to cope with the grief of losing our grandmother a couple of years before that. What started off as something I did socially spiralled out of control into alcoholism and drug addiction. I had to drop out of my Master’s degree to contend with that dark patch in my life.

I’d always been writing poetry at Sussex and this continued during this difficult patch. I published my first poetry collection in 2018, exploring islamophobia and racism in the time of Brexit Britain. In 2018, I received a surprising invitation to read at a poetry festival in India. Reading outside in Delhi, surrounded by flora and fauna in the pleasant hazy sunshine, I had something ignite in me that made me think, wow I want to do this for the rest of my life.

When I got back to the UK, I applied to Birkbeck because I knew several alumni who recommended studying there. I managed to get sober by the time I submitted my application. For a period of nine months, I was totally integrated back into normal life. Approaching a year at Birkbeck and filled with so much energy, I founded a publishing company with two friends called The 87 Press, named after the number of my family home. Our company mission was to change the landscape of publishing, by advocating for fairer trade and more smaller presses in bookstores, but also a more clearly defined representation of under-represented writers. We started off very clueless as to what owning a company would entail, but thrived off the energy of hosting events, publishing books and visiting universities to hold creative writing workshops with students, offering them the chance to get their work published.

Everything was going really well for me, but I was growing wearisome of being ‘that guy’ that always has the lime soda. So, I started walking out the door of sobriety again. I suffer from depression and anxiety too, and everything was taking its toll. During this time, I also met the love of my life who’s stuck by me through all of this recent drama. Both her and my family have been steadfast and invaluable supports.

At the beginning of 2020, I felt really disorientated with everything going on. I needed some counselling, so I signed up to Birkbeck’s counselling service. My counsellor was wonderful and compassionate, and really listened to me. I’ve now been clean for over a year – it’s not been easy, but I’m pleased that now sobriety is my normality.

My ultimate career goal is to become a lecturer, so this autumn I’m pursuing a PhD in English and Humanities at Birkbeck. I got the news that I had been awarded funding for my PhD on the day I was a year clean, which is serendipity to the max.

I plan to continue with The 87 Press during my PhD. We’ve just published our 15th book and it’s such a joy – it continues to surprise me what our initiative can do and the people it can reach. After my PhD it would be a dream to become a lecturer at Birkbeck and have the opportunity to give back. Birkbeck really is a place that gives people second chances in life.

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A sepia tone image of The Scott Monument in Edinburgh, taken in 1845 by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson

Anglo-German Encounters with Drama and Poetry

This post was contributed by Catherine Angerson, a PhD student in the Department of Cultures and Languages. Here, Catherine reports on the Royal Society of Edinburgh Susan Manning Symposium on ‘Anglo-German Encounters with Drama and Poetry, 1760–1835’ held at the University of Edinburgh on 13–14 June.

Speakers travelled from Germany, Iceland, England and Belgium to join colleagues at the University of Edinburgh for a fascinating two-day discussion of reciprocal contacts between British and German dramatic and poetic literature in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The event took place the week before the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union and so I and the other participants were conscious of the contemporary relevance of our historical topic.

The topicality of satirical dramas

A sepia tone image of The Scott Monument in Edinburgh, taken in 1845 by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson

The Scott Monument, Edinburgh, photograph by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, 1845

The symposium began with two papers about the translation and adaptation of English plays for the German stage. Sonja Fielitz (Marburg) introduced the audience to German translations of Henry Fielding’s dramas for the Mannheim theatre. The success of satirical dramas depended on their topicality, and if translated literally, jokes and puns would have been lost on a new audience. Johannes Birgfeld’s (Saarland) paper on August von Kotzebue’s translations of English comedies showed that plays were translated in order to meet an increasing demand for new dramas for dozens of new theatres that opened all over the German-speaking world from the 1770s onwards and for almanacs of plays that families could perform at home.

Plays, especially melodramas, could be adapted or reimagined for a new domestic audience by changing the names, setting or topical references. Barry Murnane (Oxford) demonstrated that English dramatic adaptations of German Schauerliteratur (Gothic fiction), on the other hand, were deliberately menacing and foreign, presenting Germans as the dangerous ‘other’.

German poetry and drama in late eighteenth-century Scotland

The second panel focused on literary relations between Scotland and Germany. Scottish authors began to look to Germany for new dramatic and poetic sources that would help to revitalise and inspire what they felt to be a dormant national literature. Lucy Linforth (Edinburgh) showed that Walter Scott was aware of traces of the Scottish ballad Sweet William’s Ghost in Bürger’s ballad Lenore and that he used his knowledge of the Scottish ballad when he created his own translation of the German poem. Michael Wood (Edinburgh) examined the positive reception of German drama by Henry Mackenzie and Walter Scott in the 1780s and 1790s within the philosophical context of the Scottish Enlightenment. Lessing’s application of his theory of ‘Mitleid’ in dramas such as Emilia Galotti is closely allied with the role of ‘sympathy’ in Scottish moral sense philosophy and the sentimental novel.

The politics of Anglo-German cultural exchange

Phd student Catherine Angerson

Catherine Angerson

My own paper, which was part of a panel on ‘the politics of cultural exchange’, examined reviews of German poetry and drama in the Monthly Review. I linked the growing interest in German literature in Britain in the second half of the eighteenth century to the intellectual culture of ‘rational’ Dissent and the networks of literary groups and families (such as the Aikin-Barbauld circle in Norwich and London) that allowed liberal-minded Dissenters to dominate the publication and writing of literary reviews during the period of study. I argued that ideas found in German literature were appropriated by the reviewers in support of their own religious, aesthetic or political aims and that the reviews contributed to some of the wider debates that played out in the pages of literary journals, particularly between proponents and opponents of political and religious reform in the decade following the French Revolution. New research presented at this event is revealing national and regional differences in the history of Anglo-German cultural exchange that have not been explored before.

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The Future of the Book – Dead or Alive?

This post was contributed by Megan McGill, who will be starting Birkbeck’s MA in Modern and Contemporary Literature this summer. Follow Megan on Twitter

Is the book dead? Is the eBook in decline? These are some of the questions that prompted talk at ‘The Future of the Book’ panel on Wednesday evening, chaired by editor of the Writers’ Hub, Rebecca Rouillard. Speaking were Adam Freudenheim of Pushkin Press, Emma Wright of The Emma Press, and Dan Kieran of Unbound. The talk was both engrossing and informative, making the process of editing down eight pages of handwritten notes incredibly difficult. The topics discussed were wide-ranging, from the competition between physical and digital books, the relationship between a publishing house and its readership, and techniques for broadening your audience, giving an insight into the inner-workings of publishing to an audience who may not be, certainly for me personally, that knowledgeable on the topic. It certainly achieved an important closing of the gap between publishing houses and readers that Wright discusses later.

We must first discuss one of the most common questions asked to publishers: books or eBooks? EBooks have proven a massive success for international audiences recently due to the eradication of a need for postage costs; however it’s hard to translate the illustrations of a physical book into a scrolling-screen format. This is problematic with today’s books, with publishers raising their design game over the past five years, experimenting with design, paper, and illustrations as a way to reinstate the importance of physical books. Wright explained how she designs her publications to look purposely handmade as a way to remind the reader that it’s an object made by people, and therefore straying away from the corporate looks many houses have taken up.

Forming this personal relationship between the reader and publisher is becoming increasingly more important, especially when it comes to the provocative subject of the price of books. There’s been an enormous downward focus on the price of books recently; you only have to look at online marketplaces to see this in action. Books prove a better value for money than seeing a live sports game, or going to the cinema, but this pressure to keep their price low still seems to be imperative for many businesses. This doesn’t have to be the way, however. Unbound prints the names of its pledgers in the back of the books they helped fund as a way to show the direct relation between the book and the reader. Kieran explained how the public no longer want to be passive consumers like we saw in the culture of 1990s, but are seeking more enriching personal experiences.

This connection with readers also helps you to know, and therefore grow, your market. This is incredibly important for Wright specifically as she tries to sell poetry to the vast market of non-poetry readers. As a reaction to the erotica boom sparked by 50 Shades of Grey, the Emma Press published an anthology of mildly erotic verse. It’s all about knowing what’s popular and what people want in order to interest new readers, but still keeping to your own way of doing things to maintain your niche.

Did the speakers have any predictions for the future of the book? The eBook boom is levelling off, said Freudenheim, so both print and digital need to be focused on. The physical book isn’t going anywhere, with the majority of publishers still getting 80-5% of their sales from them. For Kieran the importance lies in the use of networks for both publishing houses and authors. Knowing your audience and getting them excited about your releases is the new way of selling books. People will always read and write, it’s how we sell it that will change.  Professional publishing has so many advantages and the majority of successful self-published authors end up becoming professionally published for their subsequent works because of all of these advantages. Large publishers frequently get bad press, but the good aspects of the way they work are truly beneficial. These are the aspects that need to be kept in any development of the industry if it wants to have a rewarding, and successful, future.

Thank you to all of the speakers who took the time to come and teach us about the industry and how many different forms it can take today. I learned so much and am inspired by the stories they told of their personal experiences taking what they’re passionate about and turning it into something new, and rewarding.

The speakers were:

Adam Freudenheim, Pushkin Press. Formerly Penguin’s Publisher of Classics, Modern Classics, and Reference. Now focuses on his passion, translations, discovering popular works from abroad unknown in the UK.

Emma Wright, Founder of The Emma Press. Previously worked for Orion’s eBook division. Now commissions, illustrates and edits books with her friend Rachel Piercey. Press specialises in poetry anthologies, postcards and pamphlets, soon to be releasing their first non-poetry pamphlets of short stories, essays, and plays.

Dan Kieran, Co-founder of Unbound. Unbound is a platform for authors to have works crowdfunded, but also to communicate with their audience. Inspired by the old ways of selling books in the eighteenth century, where readers subscribed in advance for a book.

Learn more about Unbound by clicking here and The Emma Press by clicking here.

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Where We’re From, Who We Are

How do our backgrounds – where we were born, where our parents and grandparents were born and where we live – shape our sense of ourselves and how we express that sense of self? Birkbeck creative writing lecturers Anthony Joseph and Liane Strauss explored these questions at two free events hosted by Islington Central Library as part of Islington’s Word2013 Festival.

Anthony Joseph’s inspiring writing workshop encouraged Islington residents to think about their ancestors by focusing on voices from the past and family ‘black sheep.’ A week later, workshop participants read their work alongside Birkbeck students at Liane Strauss’ exciting performance event.

Liane said “The theme of the Islington event: Where We’re From, Who We Are, fit right into themes we had been exploring on the course. On the evening, our creative writing students were joined by some of the participants on Anthony’s workshop. It was a wonderful mix of poems and poets, a great opportunity for potential students to meet current students and hear their work. A brilliant evening and a great success!”

WE WERE BORN ON A SUNDAY

1.
[Saltpond, Ghana 1681]

My name is Eresi Mebrabrabio
I’m tall like palm wine tree
My husband calls me Odo
Yes, Odo, for he loves me like the smooth
Arabi coffee I warm for him at break of day
But few know me.
I am Mami Wata.
I hide my wares in Egyaa number two
And sell them in Kormantse,
I come home with beads.

2.
[Jos, Nigeria, 1979]

Sister Esi Panyin; now she is a marvel to behold
Hair like crown of Frangipani tree; body
Tall like Araba; skin smooth like
Clay, Rayfield laterite; and eyes,
Eyes wide like Bush-Baby.
Many fear the lash of her tongue,
Bulala tongue that fells Baobab tree
Faster than a Kwado-frog catches flies.
But her smile, when it comes, is the cool, cool of
Rain after a season of punishing dry.

3.
[London, England, 2013]

Eresi I wanted to have your name
But mother said no,
I wanted to bear your tribal mark
But mother said no,
Sister Panyin did not care.  She smoked
Her spliff and she laughed: “Let’s go to the
Niger Bend and bury bare feet in the dust!”
My name is Esi Kakraba and
That is how it was.

 Juanita Cox Westmaas

 Black Sheep

I am alone. Sitting in a room with my husband who no longer speaks to me,
And the two remaining children that I was allowed to have back
I am alone.

They scream for me externally and I scream for her internally
The one they took away from me.
I try to see her face, but it’s fading.
I try to hear her voice but its fading.
My now-babies scream louder.
‘Aren’t you going to see to them?’ my husband says.
It’s the first time he’s spoken to me today, yet he still doesn’t look at me.

I pick up the first baby and jiggle him on my knee.
I’ve forgotten how to be a mother.
I coo and sing until he’s settled, and pick up the second baby.
The only daughter I have left.

I try to see my child that was taken; the one I used to cradle so tightly.
The one whose hair had that sweet cotton candy smell.
The one who looked nothing like her father.

When I gave birth to her I was sick;
Not through sickness, but through knowing.
My husband held my hand through the birth, and told me that he loved me.
I just cried.
I knew when I saw her face that those dark eyes belonged to another man.

In the following weeks my husband cooed over me and her and bought us both presents.
He stayed up and read the now-babies bedtime stories before tucking them in,
And then he’d sit by her cot and he’d watch her.
‘She’s so beautiful,’ he’d say, ‘Just like her mother’.
Bile rose in my throat – I began to resent her.
She was a constant reminder of my mistakes, of my lies, of my shame.
Her eyes gave her away.
I knew that when she grew older, she would reveal our secret.

When my husband went to work, I looked at those eyes that would soon betray me.
I didn’t feel love nor hate, as I snaked the fingers of my right hand around her neck, cradling her head with my left.
Her skin felt so soft.
My heart danced as if it was on fire.
I had no choice.
I felt for her windpipe and started to squeeze.
‘What are you doing?’
He was at the door holding flowers.
He left work early as a surprise.
He caught me strangling my youngest child.
That was the beginning.

 Kim Fraser

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