RLS Fellowship: France Will Solve Everything
An edited re-cap of journal entries during my month at Hotel Chevillon, Grez-sur-Loing, following receipt of a Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship.
For some context, as for every other creative freelancer juggling work, 2016 had seemed like a frantic year. The time in France was to be spent working on my first collection of poetry, due out with Freight Books in 2017. I had been looking forward to the residency for months, and was also a bit terrified of it.
It was reassuring to know that a few friends and acquaintances had been out there before – friendly ghosts – but one, knowing how quiet the village could be, had warned me, 'there's nowhere to hide in Grez.'
The US Presidential Election was also looming.
Thur 27 October 2016
It felt so important, urgent, to buy fresh pages and new ink. Even if I am slightly ahead of myself here. France – FRANCE – is finally here, and tomorrow I’ll be there
FRANCE will solve everything.
Sun 30 October
Sleeping well in a small, locked room in a big house where I can hear the footsteps, the voices of others down corridors with wooden floorboard. I feel safe.
Did I nearly sabotage this? Yes. I have come away without the paper copy of the manuscript, without most of the notes, notebooks, references, bits of paper that I have been collecting, sorting through forever. Why?
Mon 31 October
There are bangs, footsteps, doors, voices calling. Mysterious blue plastic bags of food being brought to the shared kitchen, left by the kettle, in the fridge. Leaving day. I don't know if it means I will be all on my own (tonight, Hallowe'en) in this big, old, elegant, cold hotel-pension of a place, with its garden straight onto the river, elms and horse-chestnut trees. Ducks that go quack in the night.
Part of me hopes it. Part of me dares it.
Still – breathlessly – can't believe I left the manuscript. Or the notes.
Thur 3 November
This month. Churches falling in Italy. Cubs win the World Series for the first time in 108 years (I don't really know what that means, but it sounds good). The US Election. Five days until the world rises or falls.
Fri 4 November
The book is not yet dug into. Like Ryan (van Winkle, former recipient of RLS Fellowship, friend and occasional cracker of whip) admonished 'head down, hand strong'. Been here a week now. Three left. Dig in. All else can wait.
Sun 6 November
Found the other bar* in town.
(*Le Baroque – recommended! 10 minutes’ walk from the centre of Grez, beside the D607 dual carriageway. Daniel, the owner, is lovely and spends six months of the year in Thailand. The Thai menu is freshly prepared and he has a fine and unexpected selection of Islay single malts, including Caol Ila and Lagavulin. It has a covered terrace and a Guinness sign. Slightly resembles something you might find in a David Lynch film.)
Mon 7 November
It's snowing in Grez today. Fat, grey, cold flakes. Someone is whooping, choking, screeching in the streets outside. The sky is falling, Chicken Little.
Tue 8 November
Reading Janice Galloway, The Trick is To Keep Breathing.
It is the day before the US Election. We don't know what is going to happen yet.
I look up the rules for writing sonnets.
Wed 9 November
Thur 10 November
Trying to resist "us" and "they". Not sure if I should resist. The gratification of anger. Proper, deep fear, futility, uselessness. The resolve.
Too full of things. The satisfaction of the alt-right. This is more than one man. This is a movement. Gendered, power-hungry, ruthless, vicious, delighting in triumph. Sickened, again.
So I'll take the wine bottles out, go for a run, do laundry. Read about the Right. Write. Must write!
Mon 14 November
Back from a weekend in Paris. Reading Flaneuse by Zoe Elkin.
Did you know that Napoleon III employed Baron Haussmann to widen the streets in 1848 – to create those divine and occasionally impossible carmageddon arcades – to make the building of barricades impossible?
Did you know that in 1800, the time of George Sand, there was a law forbidding women to wear trousers in public? To do so legally, one had to apply for a "cross-dressing permit", to be able to demonstrate, with medical records, that one had "some kind of hideous deformity which made it unsightly [for one] to appear in skirts." Largely attributed to the number of women who had fought in drag, as males, during the French Revolution. Technically, this law still stands.
Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost. That "lost" comes from the Old Norse "los", specifically to refer to the disbanding of an army, back to the wider world.
Walter Benjamin, Arcades Project. "Streets are the dwelling place of the collective".
'We need the mass movements, we need people to get together and march, or even just stand in one place, not only for those in power to see what the people want, but for people who are decidedly not empowered to see you out there and to shift, just a little bit, the pebbles of thought in their minds. The protest is not only to show the government that you disagree, but to show your fellow citizens – even the smallest ones – that official policies can and should be disagreed with. To provoke a change. To disrupt easy assumptions.
‘You show yourself. You toss in your chips. You walk.'
Tue 15 November
Rhino poem down, two content poems down. Aim for a third today. No shower, no run, no conversation. Write and write. Write predetermined rather than what I'm actually feeling? Mind still full. Body worn. Cereal, coffee, soup, crackers, haricots vert, egg, dried fruit, herbal tea. Write Read. Repeat.
Can't store things up and write 'em. Everything changes. Can't write out of context, can't think the context the same. Everything has to be of this year, this month, before the next bit of news comes in. It must be urgent. It must be written when, or it is otherwise always fractured lenses, new cracks appearing in the telescope.
Sleep, eat, read news, write roughly and loosely, read news, run, stretch, eat, email, repeat.
That is it. Except I no longer wholly want to write what I want to write. But will keep going, and write new when and where I can. Even if it is only extremely long lists of references.
Sun 20 Nov
Richard Rorty's predictions on the fall of the Left in America. Among other things, "Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion."
The pack of young men in their headtorches howling through the streets last night. Even not understanding the words: The threat of the energy. The wind rustling dry leaves through the streets.
Mon 21 November
And five days down to three. Time to go back. I don't want to. This has been brilliant. I am breathing. And there is more to do, always more to do.
Tue 22 November
Things I know. These poems are
uneven in tone
not clever in language
But they're trying. Maybe too hard. But trying.
Thur 24 Nov
Packed (nearly). Watch for clothes not being dry. The internet is on the blink again. Happy for it to be. So at the wooden kitchen table with yoghurt, milky coffee, clementines. Hyacinths and a bowl of chestnuts. The white-and-black-tiled floor, blue walls. I could stay for another month. I nearly hit 40 poems (this is in total for the collection – not 40 poems in 28 days! I managed 15 in 28 days. I think that's an okay average). I'm six off, so that's a lie, but I can see where they're going. Went off the rails a couple of times... but I have run and I have written and I have thought and I have ordered myself.
Goodbye to courtyard, river and bridge. Chestnut trees and swans; empty caravan park, mist on the football pitch.
My deep thanks to Scottish Book Trust and the Robert Louis Stevenson Foundation for this award: to Stewart Sanderson, Kimmi and Janna, Gunzi, Brita, Annika and SuperMario for sharing this month; and to Kerstin Decroix of the Stifelson Foundation for looking after us so magnificently.