Thursday, November 17, 2011

Interview with UK Writer/Editor Mary Cook

Mary Cook is a UK-based writer and editor whose articles, short stories and poems have appeared in numerous publications, both in print and online. Her main writing interests are humour, horror and the writing craft.

A former beekeeper, she was commissioned to write a beginners’ book on beekeeping by Weaver Press in 1992. She was a spoof agony aunt for The Lark, an “adult” newspaper sold around the pubs in the Midlands. She worked as a reporter with the Skegness Standard newspaper for a number of years and has been a columnist for online writers’ magazines.

A Nichiren Shoshu Buddhist, she landed a job as overseas correspondent to the Tokyo-based Hiragana Times when returning from an annual pilgrimage to Head Temple Taisekiji in the foothills of Mount Fuji. She retired two years ago to the old market town of Market Rasen in Lincolnshire, England, with her husband Nick and their adored Border terrier Brucie.

Her poetry ebook Collywobblers (InkSpotter Publishing, 2008) was recently re-released as a Smashwords edition.

What motivated you to start writing?

In a word, poverty! Though perhaps I should explain that that's what motivated me to become a professional writer. I'd been writing as a hobby for as long as I can remember.

What is the primary source of inspiration for you?

I'm mainly inspired by the beauty of nature. Then my nasty mind gives it a malevolent twist.

Do you write when the muse strikes, or do you follow a writing schedule?

I'm the one who does the striking. I beat my muse with a big stick until the ideas come flowing out.

Please describe your process.

Oh, wow! That implies some sort of method. That's a concept that's quite alien to my disordered mind.

What have you done to promote yourself as a writer?

I write press releases. I used to be a reporter on a regional newspaper, so I know what works and what doesn't. Sadly, too many people think they have an absolute right to see their press releases in print. Not so—they have to grovel to somebody like me or their words end up in the waste bin or are deleted from the editorial computer.

What's left to do?

I'm doing what a lot of people my age do (I'm in my 70th year). I've started writing a novel, which I'll probably never finish. In fact, the only way it's likely to get in print is if it's published posthumously, in which case it will be a huge success because writers are usually only deemed to be of interest once they're dead.

When did you discover your unique voice? How long did the process take?

I like to think my voice has always been unique. It's that disordered mind at work again!

What do you consider your greatest achievement as a writer?

For the last few years before I became a senior citizen with a pension, I actually made a living as a writer. Admittedly, my needs are simple, which is just as well as I haven't made a fortune.

What's the most recent book you read?

Believe it or not, it was The Official DSA Guide to Driving, The Essential Skills. Yes, I've actually started learning to drive at my advanced age. I haven't actually killed anyone yet, though if I did it would make great copy.

Who are the writers you admire most?

Oh gosh, you'll find me really boring now. I'm a devoted Jane Austen fan, and my favourite poets are Philip Larkin and Dylan Thomas. And I absolutely loathe Shakespeare. I think he's the most overrated literary figure of all time.

What's your best piece of advice for novice writers?

Read every piece of advice from established writers that you can possibly find. Then do things your own way.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

Writing is the most rewarding and the most fun job imaginable. If you're not having fun with your writing, don't bother doing it. There are easier ways to earn a living.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Sometimes a publisher gets lucky

Sometimes a publisher gets lucky.

Sometimes a manuscript comes in that has been vetted and edited by multiple hands and has a solid marketing plan...not to mention its own kick-butt cover art.

That's what happened to me with Lifelines.

The poetry collection was originally pitched to me during last year's Muse Online Writers Conference. There was no mistaking the effort and dedication of the co-authors, known collectively as The Poetic Muselings. They'd refined their manuscript through multiple versions and consulted with experienced mentors in developing their marketing plan. I knew, without a doubt, that I wanted to read their book.

A year later, Lifelines is a reality. available on Amazon and CreateSpace. Lin Neiswender's beautiful collage graces the cover, and her words share space on the inside with the five other Muselings (Michele M. Graf, Margaret Fieland, Anne Westlund, Mary W. Jensen and Kristen Howe).

True to their original pitch, The Poetic Muselings are putting every effort into marketing their book. They're a publisher's dream come true.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Aemilia Lanyer: A Woman of Words, Part 5

Miniature portrait from
1593 that may depict
Aemilia Lanyer

Aemilia Lanyer: A Woman of Words, Part 4

Ultimately, Aemilia calls out for equality between men and women, a world in which both sexes may realize personal autonomy.

     Then let us have our Libertie againe,
     And challendge to your selves no Sov'raigntie;
     You came not in the world without our paine,
     Make that a barre against your crueltie;
     Your fault beeing greater, why should you disdaine
     Our beeing your equals, free from tyranny?
                If one weake woman simply did offend,
                This sinne of yours, hath no excuse, nor end.

(Lanyer 1993, 87)

Boldly, she challenges the assume superiority of men over women. She is ahead of her time, as the saying goes, not for the thoughts but for their expression.

To this, Rowse glibly responds:

     Really, she might be a precursor of Women's Lib! ... this was what the
     menfolk -- the Lord Chamberlain who had discarded her, Alfonso who
     had taken her on unhappily, his actor-dramatist who had fallen for her,
     Forman who came to detest her -- had all had to put up with. We may
     legitimately, if modestly, conclude that men found her a bit much.
(Rowse, 28)

I suppose that is a fair enough comment, because I find Rowse a bit much as well. Sadly, his misogyny saw print as recently as 1978. For some people, very little has changed in 400 years.

Aemilia's book apparently failed to find an audience, and her life began a steady decline. Alphonso died in 1613, at which point she signed over the hay and straw monopoly to his brother, Innocent. The irony of her brother-in-law's name cannot be ignored. He apparently agreed to split the income with Aemilia, but he paid her only a pittance. Even when he passed the monopoly on to another brother, Clement -- also ironically named -- the latter reneged, too, despite repeated court orders.

Aemilia's attempt to run a school for children in the upper echelons only succeeded in leading her back to the courts. She sued her landlord for compensation for repairs she made to the building; he countersued for the rent she refused to pay. Somehow, she managed to achieve the status of pensioner -- one in receipt of a regular income -- by the time she died in 1645. Either her legal wrangling with Clement succeeded or she found other means of supporting herself. In any case, she was apparently never able to achieve her lifelong goal of re-entering high society.

As stated earlier, Aemilia's turbulent life may have helped form her "radical" opinions on the status of women. Her views permeate her poetry and prose. More than a theological curiosity, Aemilia is a prime example of the literary value of female writers of the Renaissance or any other period. There were only nine copies of Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum known to exist as of 1996, and her book received minimal attention from scholars until relatively few years before that. Rowse gets the credit, although he demeaned her character, for finally bringing her work to the public eye in 1973.

All that matters now is that others are willing either to stand in her defence or present the unadorned facts and that her work is studied in context with Spenser, Marlowe and -- Heaven help us -- Shakespeare.


Saturday, September 3, 2011

Aemilia Lanyer: A Woman of Words, Part 4

Miniature portrait from
1593 that may depict
Aemilia Lanyer
Aemilia Lanyer: A Woman of Words, Part 3

Rowse debunks Aemilia's focus on religion and virtue as mere posturing, an attempt to cover up the "fact" that men no longer found her attractive (24). Her history with men -- Lord Hunsdon in fact, Shakespeare and Forman in speculation --is treated as inseparable from her character. Rowse does not allow for the changes that maturity can work on even the wildest heart. Who else might he condemn to suffer forever the mistakes of their youth?

"Salve Deux Rex Judaeorum" is a retelling of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ in the context of the ultimate crime of men (not to be confused with mankind, which includes both men and women). Aemilia's description of Christ's personality overflows with traits that might be defined as traditionally feminine.

     He was content to stoope unto their Lure,
     Although his Greatnesse might doe otherwise;
     Here Grace was seised on with hands impure,
     And Virtue now must be supprest by Vice,
          Pure Innocencie made a prey to Sinne,
          Thus did his Torments and our Joyes beginne.

     Here faire Obedience shined in his breast,
     And did suppresse all feare of future paine;
     Love was his Leader unto this unrest,
     Whil'st Righteousnesse doth carry up his Traine;
     Mercy made way to make us highly blest,
     When Patience beat downe Sorrow, Feare and Paine:
          Justice sate looking with an angry brow,
          On blessed misery appeering now.
(Lanyer 1993, 74)

This is all the more striking for his being brought down by men, whose representative traits stand in sharp contrast to Chist's qualities. Even Death, Sin and Tyranny are characterized as male.

"Righteousnesse doth carry up his Traine," from the above excerpt, presents the reader with the image of a bride marching down the aisle. One might infer that Aemilia saw her marriage to Alphonso as a personal sacrifice, one which forever removed her from the Royal court. Further on, the narrator says of the persecution, "Nor can their wisdoms any way discover, / Who he should be that proov'd so true a Lover" (Lanyer 1993, 80). Are you listening, Dr. Rowse? Sounds to me like Aemilia wishes that all men could be so true to love as Christ to his faith.

Aemilia holds many men accountable for the crucifixion, but guilt first falls on the head of the Disciple Judas. Although he is not named -- as if his very name would blight the tongue of the speaker -- his story is unmistakable.

     See thy Betrayer, whom too well they knowe,
     One of the twelve, now object of disgrace,
     A trothlesse traytor, and a mortall foe,
     With fained kindnesse seekes thee to imbrace;
          And gives a kiss, whereby he may deceive thee,
          That in the hands of Sinners he may leave thee.
(Lanyer 1993, 72)

The other Disiples abandon Jesus to his fate, "Though they protest they never will forsake him / They do like men, when dangers overtake them" (Lanyer 1993, 78). In other words, they protect their own backsides. Even Peter, as Christ predicted, denies him three times.

Aemilia goes on to suggest that man's responsibility for the death of Christ sheds new light on Eve's role in mankind's expulsion from Eden. While women wear the shame of Original Sin, Aemilia argues that Adam should be held accountable.

     Who being fram'd by Gods eternall hand,
     The perfect'st man that ever breath'd on earth;
     And from Gods mouth receiv'd that strait command,
     The breach whereof he knew was present death;
     Yea having powre to rule both Sea and Land,
     Yet with one Apple wonne to loose that breath
          Which God had breathed in his beauteous face,
          Bringing us all in danger and disgrace.
(Lanyer 1993, 85)

He was the physically stronger of the two, the master of Eden, in direct communication with God. Eve ate of the Tree of Knowledge through the deception of the Serpent; she passed on the "gift" to Adam out of innocence and love. Adam knew better than she the consequences of the act and should have been able to resist temptation. Wherever one places the blame, Aemilia says, the persecution of Jesus is a far greater sin.


Monday, August 29, 2011

Aemilia Lanyer: A Woman of Words, Part 3

Aemilia Lanyer: A Woman of Words, Part 2

Not long after her marriage to Alphonso Lanyer, Aemilia may have become involved with William Shakespeare. According to Rowse, she was the inspiration for the Bard's infamous "Dark Lady."

Then again, Rowse also seems to believe every word of Forman's journal and interprets broadly from its contents in determining whether Aemilia succumbed to Forman. Moreover, he claims Aemilia "always exaggerated" (Rowse 34) and defines her strength of will in terms of "rampant feminism" (Rowse 20). His little asides are condescending in the extreme, like a sly nudge-wink to the reader, whom Rowse assumes will share his point of view.

Aemilia's one collection, Salve Deux Rex Judaeorum (Hail, God, King of the Jews), was first published in 1611.

The 11 prefatory pieces are dedications to various royal and noble women, as well as "To all vertuous Ladies in generall." Such blatant flattery as displayed in these pieces is well in keeping with the practice of the day. Stroke the right egos, specifically those attached to persons of wealth and power, and suddenly you are running with the In Crowd. In the following excerpt from "To the Queenes most Excellent Majestie," Aemilia opens with praise for Queen Anne, the wife of James I.

          Renowned Empresse, and great Britaines Queene,
          Most gratious Mother of succeeding Kings;
          Vouchsafe to view that which is seldome seene,
          A Womans writing of divinest things:
                   Reade it faire Queene, though it defective be,
                   Your Excellence can grace both It and Mee.
(Lanyer 1993, 3)

Early introduction of a self-deprecating tone does not hurt, either. The author humbly declares the undertaking to be beyond her meagre skills then goes on to (hopefully) meet the challenge.

In her short prose piece "To the Vertuous Reader," Aemilia fairly screams her reason for writing the main poem, "Salve Deux Rex Judaeorum." She feels that women in general -- and perhaps herself in particular -- have suffered undue slander from men and women alike. Men should remember they are born of woman, she asserts, and women should support their own. True to the life-hands-you-a-lemon tradition, Aemilia entreats virtuous women "not to regard any imputations, that they undeservedly lay upon us, no otherwise than to make use of them to our owne benefits, as spurres to vertue, making us flie all occasions that may colour their unjust speeches to passe currant" (Lanyer 1993, 49). If Rowse's Dark Lady theory is correct, this piece may be Aemilia's reaction to the 1609 publication of Shakespeare's Sonnets, in which the Dark Lady is so prominent a figure.

Whether Aemilia was truly the inspiration for the Dark Lady or merely perceived as such by the public, she would have considered the characterization to be libelous. In such a scenario, she would have struck back in kind, voicing her contempt with the printed word.

Aemilia's apparent reactionary stance is reinforced in the body of the main poem, wherein she writes:

          But woe to them that double-hearted bee,
          Who with their tongues the righteous Soules doe slay;
          Bending their bowes to shoot at all they see,
          With upright hearts their Maker to obay;
          And secretly doe let their arrowes flee,
          To wound true hearted people any way:
                    The Lord wil roote them out that speake prowd things,
                    Deceitfull tongues are but false Slanders wings.
(Lanyer 1993, 55-56)

She was clearly expressing her anger against those who wilfully spread falsehoods. One might safely assume that Aemilia herself was the target of such defamatory comment. However, if her invective was aimed at anyone in particular, such detail was not revealed to the reader.


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Real Profit in Poetry

Common wisdom holds that there's no money in writing. And let's be honest, what little there might be for most of us -- assuming we're not Stephen King or the celebrity of the day -- rarely if ever finds its way into the hands of poets. 

Consider the image of the starving poet, huddled in his lonely garret, warming his fingers over a stubby candle so he can scratch out a few more inspired lines by that same meager light. With each word, he leaves another bit of his soul on the page. 

Romantic, isn’t it? 

Only if you’re inspired by your own suffering. I prefer to take my cues from outside influences. 

The natural world is rich in inspiring imagery, from the humble resting place of a slowly melting snowflake to the panoramic reach of the Rocky Mountains. No detail is too small to warrant your attention. And nothing is too large to be captured with a few carefully chosen words.

Strangers are another fine source of ideas. The less you know about them the better. Simply graft your imagination onto their physical attributes, and you’re well on your way to creating something unique. 

With its brevity of form, poetry excels at capturing a moment in exquisite detail. And somehow, magically, poetry sees past even the ugliest fa├žade to the beauty within.

While poetry probably won’t pay the bills, it will most certainly enrich your life.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Aemilia Lanyer: A Woman of Words, Part 2

Miniature portrait from
1593 that may depict
Aemilia Lanyer
Aemilia Lanyer: A Woman of Words, Part 1

Aemilia soon moved on to the court of Elizabeth I and the bed of Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon. At age 23, she became pregnant and lost her "favoured" status as mistress to the 68-year-old nobleman. Like any good employee, she walked away with a pension (he bought her off). Propriety demanded that her child have a legitimate birth, and she married Alphonso Lanyer.

Coincidentally, her new husband was a musician. He was also something of a businessman, having been granted a monopoly in the London hay and straw weighing market. In theory, two creative people united under the umbrella of a secure income should have been happy together. However, certain details have suggested that their marriage was not without problems.

After the birth of Lord Hunsdon's son, Henry, all but one of Aemilia's pregnancies ended in miscarriage. If Alphonso had any difficulty in accepting another man's son as his own then he must have been disappointed at siring a girl who died in infancy. One account has suggested that Alphonso was an abuser and a wastrel, depleting Aemilia's "severance" in his lifetime.

Aemilia may have felt trapped in her marriage and deprived of the luxuries to which she had become so accustomed at Lord Hunsdon's side. Being the Lord Chamberlain's mistress was more impressive than being a court musician's wife. She seemed bent on reclimbing the social ladder, either through her husband's promotion or her own publication.

Notably, much of what is known of the early years of Aemilia's marriage is attributed to a questionable source.

Her astrologer, Simon Forman, kept a journal on all his clientele. Her visits began on 17 May 1597 and continued for a few years. Forman considered himself something of a ladies' man. Although she may have entertained him in her home, Aemilia apparently refused his advances. His journals "are peppered with accounts of his sexual encounters, about which he is quite explicit [but] he records about Lanyer only his hope and disappointment" (Woods xxiv). He wrote from rejection and frustration when he characterized her as a whore and an incuba (Rowse 13).

IN THE NEXT INSTALLMENT: Shakespeare's Dark Lady?