a year of only listening to women

Back at the beginning of October two completely ordinary things happened on the same day: I went to a conference, for work, whose speakers were (while I was there at least) probably 98% male; in the evening, I went with one of my sisters to see the new Blade Runner film.

The conference had me steaming pretty much as soon as I noticed the absence of women onstage – or anywhere, really; I left midway through an afternoon session, deciding on the spot that I was going to be ruthless about these things in future: if a conference doesn’t approach gender parity, I won’t be there. (I let the organisers know in some polite feedback.)

Blade Runner I was mesmerised by, but the moment I left the cinema I started thinking about how all the women in it had been objectified – to the point of annihilation in all but one case.

Two completely ordinary things, but the combination was somehow a jarring reawakening to the fact that the default is male, most of the time, in most places. And I realised how fed up of it all I was. Fed up that women’s voices are still, in so many situations, absent. Fed up that the male gaze is packaged up so lusciously for me to buy. Fed up that I barely even notice any more, and that it took these two very different events to make me sit up and really see it. Something snapped and I realised I’d had enough.

And I decided, pretty much on the spot – though decided isn’t really the right word, it felt more like an instinctive, physical reaction – that for a year, for all of 2018, I was only going to listen to women. As soon as I had that thought I was thrilled by the idea. What would it feel like, just for a year, to surround myself with only women’s voices? I read a lot, and listen to a lot of music, and probably watch at least one film a week; but how much of it has been written or created by women? I’m embarrassed, deeply, to discover that in 2015 (the last time I made a note of all the books I read, outside of work, over the course of a year), of the 38 I read, only eight were written or edited by women. There’s nothing stopping me reading – or listening to – more women; but it’s just easier, always, to default to the male. And actually, it would be very easy to read mainly women. So why don’t I? And the music I listen to, the films I watch – what would be the proportions there? Even worse, I’m sure. And just for a year, I wanted to say enough. To flip things.

So for a year, I’m only going to read books written by women. Listen to music written or performed by women – if it’s a band, they have to be fronted by a woman. Same for gigs, of course. Watch films that have either been written by or directed by women. Podcasts, theatre, talks, art – everything. Either created by, or directed by, a woman. You get the idea.

This was back in October, and I quickly realised I didn’t want to wait until the new year to begin. Then why not start in Advent, the beginning of the church year?

So I spent October and November talking about the idea with girlfriends – all of whom thought it was a great idea; drawing up my parameters; beginning to do some research – it’ll be easy to only read women, for example, but I’m going to have to try a lot harder with classical music, and perhaps even film. I’ve come out to my book group (I found that surprisingly nerve-wracking; it’s interesting to me, but I was worried that people would roll their eyes. The reactions I got were fascinating but given they’re other people’s reactions, not mine, I won’t mention them here), letting them know I’ll only be joining them for books written by women. I’ve subdivided my Cinema Paradiso film rental list into ‘the usual’ and ‘ladies only’, and switched over to make the latter my default.

The weekend before last the other of my sisters asked me what I was hoping to get out of the project. I wasn’t quite sure how to answer that: really, it’s just to enjoy making the effort to listen to women more, and more deeply. But then I realised that I was really looking forward to the disruptive nature of it – to my own reading and listening and watching habits – most of all. I’ll be honest: though I love music, it’s been a long time since I’ve been very engaged. I’ve got lazy: Radio 3 in the background in the mornings; I might put a CD on in the evening if I’m in but equally I might not; the same arrangement at weekends but with 6 Music instead. At work if I need to concentrate I’ll listen to classical music – which is overwhelmingly male – or jazz or techno if I need to plough through admin; and I’m happy to let Spotify make my choices for me. Which will default to being male. And I think the thought of not being able to just lazily turn on the radio, or plug into Spotify at work, really excites me. It’s so easy to slip into habits – and isn’t that what these structures become, and what the fight is now about? dismantling our lazy habits that we don’t even think about, where a woman can read 38 books in one given year and not even notice that only eight of them have been written by women. I’m looking forward, a little, to quietly sticking two fingers up at the patriarchy. But even more, I’m looking forward to discovering all sorts of amazing things that have been created by women – and giving them money for it. And perhaps I’m looking forward to enjoying silence more, too.

But I write ‘looking forward to’… and Advent began on Sunday. It’s here! My new era, as a friend messaged me on Sunday morning.

I spent Sunday clearing my ‘to-be-read’ bookshelf of men; all those books are now in the hallway cupboard, which I may start referring to as the cupboard of patriarchy. They’ll just have to wait another year before they get the chance to be read; to be honest, lots of them have been languishing on that shelf for a lot longer.

I was disheartened but not surprised to see how few books were left. Then again, it’s nice to feel less burdened by all those books waiting for their turn.

Going through my CDs was even more depressing. But again: hello to Björk! Neneh Cherry! PJ Harvey! Luscious Jackson! They’ll get a lot more listens this year. And I’m looking forward to making a lot more discoveries. Everything else is in shoeboxes under the sofa.

This blog, which has been dormant for a long time now, was always meant to be a sort of online scrapbook of the things I’ve been enjoying – theatre, music, books – with some of my own thoughts on writing thrown in. So at the suggestion of almost everyone who’s heard about this idea over the last few weeks, I’m resurrecting it to chronicle this year-long adventure: exactly how disruptive it is, and the discoveries I make. A fanfare for the makers: the female ones, this year. And at the very least (though I do hope it’ll be fresh and fun), it’ll be a list of resources for anyone else who’s tired of the default.

a poem for Advent: Winter Lent

A poem – well, a lyric, really – that I wrote to be set to music a few years ago.

Winter Lent

This is our winter lent: the turning of the wheel.

A smouldering wick will flame to light the dark,
the ice be broken and the water blessed;

a downy feather lift the grinding weight
and yokes be eased that we might find our rest;

that snow can cover rutted, weary ways
and fallen seeds in frozen earth take root;

and masters dress as servants at the feast
and sacred oaks bring forth, at last, a shoot.

This is our winter lent: the turning of the wheel.

The Orthodox Church marks Advent as a sort of wintertime Lent, and I wanted to hint at some of those Orthodox traditions (blessing the water) as well as some of the paganism that’s inescapably bound up in the way we celebrate and think about Christmas – seasonal change, Saturnalia and so on. I still like this poem a lot; and Andy Digitonal‘s gorgeous setting is something else. You can listen to/download it here.

days twenty-two and -three

Hmm, I seem to be getting more and more inconsistent with this blog. Happily, the writing’s continuing: yes, I wrote yesterday, and yes, I wrote today. I finally finished the Pembrokeshire coast path one, which I’ve found no better title for than ‘Pembrokeshire coast path’. I feel less certain about it than the other things I’ve finished this month; I’m still not sure if it’s anything more than description, which is not what a poem is meant to be. But perhaps after a good workshopping I’ll have a better idea.

Funnily enough the thing I wrote in one go the other night I’ve decided to bin. Not just redraft, but actually bin. I showed it to a friend whose critique (it didn’t really make sense, I don’t think, or didn’t stand up to close scrutiny anyway) made me reconsider the whole thing. I just don’t think it was very… friendly. It was occasioned by something someone said to me once and, well, if they were ever to read it, they’d be mortified. And I don’t think the world needs poems like that.

So that was an interesting thing to learn. I’m still glad I wrote it, I suppose, but it won’t be going anywhere. So in the Plath universe of poems as wooden objects, I guess it was… just a stick? And not a nice one for scratching your back with. Back of the cupboard for you, stick-poem. Sorry.

Writing day today, and I had plans for posting something long-ish about a few thoughts I’ve had around larger ideas of poetry, but in the end I just didn’t have the time. It’s getting to the time of year where I’m focusing much more on pulling together the literature programme for Greenbelt festival, so I actually spent the day working on that, after finishing the long Pembrokeshire poem in the morning. But I bookended the day with submitting a bunch of poems to a competition (judged by one of my very favourite poets), and another bunch to a new online journal. So still a productive day. And I even had time for a sunny walk in the woods, just to look and listen.

day twenty-one

Five days since my last post! I hadn’t quite realised it had been so long. It’s partly because due to work last week my schedule was a bit jumbled, which meant the writing in the morning/posting at lunchtime routine didn’t work. The weekend had its own rhythms, and I avoid using screens on Sundays; and yesterday I was ill in bed with a rotten cold. But I have been writing: every day, apart from yesterday (and I really missed it). The other reason for not posting quite so much is that, for the same reasons (work busyness and illness) I’ve not really done much in terms of the scrapbooking element of this blog. Nothing apart from watching films and, er, drinking wine. Both lovely, but not much to write home about.

Writing wise, things are still moving on at quite a lick: I’ve already forgotten exactly what I did on which day, but I’ve been tinkering with the Pembrokeshire poem, drafted a new one (megafauna!), and today wrote a whole new piece, just like that, from an idea that’s been floating around since September. Ta-da! I have no idea if it’s any good or not, but I enjoyed writing it. I think maybe I just needed to get it out of my system.

So, another new benefit from the write-daily regime: not only is it getting easier and more fun each day, I’m actually beginning to feel a bit… addicted, perhaps? It’s rare that I’ve felt like this about writing poetry. Prose, yes; poetry, no. Each day I’m chomping at the bit, and it’s pretty exhilarating.

day sixteen

Another early start (it’ll be the same again tomorrow) meant another missed writing appointment this morning: yes, I should be getting up earlier, but no, I’m not. Unlike yesterday, though, I didn’t write on the train, and for a while it looked like I might miss a day (horror!) – I got home exhausted, with writing the last thing on my mind. But then something kicked in – cussedness, perhaps – and I decided to just write for as long as my dinner took to cook, which was twenty-five minutes (actually longer than I have been writing for most mornings), and was twenty-five minutes well spent on chipping away at the Pembrokeshire coast path poem. Of all the days I’ve written, today I felt the proudest. If I’m actually sitting down to write on the days I least want to, I think I’m getting somewhere – in terms of habit-creation, I mean.

Apologies, invisible audience, for the introspective and self-absorbed nature of these posts. I suppose I see it as documenting the month’s experiment, and I don’t seem to have been doing enough stuff this week to balance out the boring detail of day to day writing.

day fourteen and an evening birdsong walk

I am so tired that I can barely keep my eyes open (I know, and it’s only 10.30), so I will keep this as brief as I can while simultaneously reporting on all the things that are on my sleepy mind…

First, the writing got done. It was my dedicated writing day today (swapped with the usual Thursday for work-related reasons), so again, of course it did, there can be no possible excuses. But it needs to be reported!

And what a great day it was… I turned yesterday’s notes, which I wasn’t sure about, into a whole, new, finished, poem. And yes, I think it works. Of course, it may not be the best thing I’ve ever written, but as a poem it does what I wanted it to, if you see what I mean (I’m thinking about Sylvia Plath’s observation that a poem can be a table or a chair or a pull-along duck… as long as it works, it’s fine). So that’s three brand-new poems in two weeks… I’m ashamed (but also thrilled) to say that’s more than I wrote (poetry-wise) in the whole of 2012. This writing daily lark needs to continue.

I also shoved at the Pembrokeshire coast path draft a bit more, and got a bit closer, I think. It’s hard work, partly because it’s long, and partly because I think it runs the risk of being description/feeling. I’m not entirely sure I know what it’s doing yet, but for now I’m just trusting that if I keep at it, it too will turn into something useful, whether that’s a table or a pull-along duck.

So one of the satellite effects of this writing daily thing is that, as momentum increases, so does my desire to get things out there. I’ve always found submitting poetry to competitions and journals about as painful as writing them in the first place – in part just because of the sheer boring-ness of it, and in part because, yes, I’m lazy and disorganised. But today I submitted four pieces to Magma magazine, and I’m working on my submission to the Faber new poets scheme – ambitious, yes, but why the hell not? It doesn’t cost anything to enter, like most competitions do. I’m also thinking about a submission to a new online journal, and two other upcoming competitions run by Mslexia. The likelihood is that none of these will actually come to anything… but just having a go feels empowering. And grouping all my poems together, in some sort of coherent order, has helped me identify which ones still have slight disfigurements that need fixing, as well as rediscovering some that I’d forgotten about/mislaid after The Great Laptop Theft of 2012.

I’ve been meaning to mention last Thursday’s walk for the last few days but just not had the time to fit it in… I’m tempted to put it off again today but know that if I don’t write about it soon all the freshness and zest will be lost. I’ll keep it brief: I live pretty close to the unbelievably gorgeous Sydenham Hill Wood, the largest remaining tract of the old Great North Wood, which used to stretch from Deptford to Selhurst. It’s now managed as a nature reserve, and it’s a really special place: it’s hard to believe you’re so close to central London when you’re there. Quite by chance I stumbled across an online mention of last Thursday’s evening birdsong walk, and as I’ve been getting into birds a bit recently (in the most casual way possible – mainly just keeping an eye out for them, and enjoying watching them in the trees around my flat) and generally just loving woodland, I went along. Although the wind meant that we didn’t hear a huge amount of birdsong, it was still brilliant. Learning to listen out for and identify a few birds just from their calls was pretty thrilling, and learning about the wood and its history from conservation officer Daniel Greenwood was fascinating. Plus being in woodland at dusk is pretty special by itself. There’s another guided tree identification walk this Thursday, and if I can manage the timings work-wise, I’ll be there. Highly recommended if you just happen to be in South East London.

Swifts weren’t on the menu, but here’s a piece I wrote about listening to them a few years ago, on London Grip.

days twelve and thirteen

I tend not to do anything particularly work-y on Sundays, including writing poetry (which I do see as work); and I especially avoid screens if I can (ie my laptop). But I’ve got a separate little project (aside from poetry) that I’m trying to do on Sundays at the moment, so that’s what I did yesterday. No poetry, but still writing.

Today I was back on track, writing for fifteen minutes this morning after breakfast. I was a bit reluctant to turn on my laptop and possibly waste time on twitter again, so I left the Pembrokeshire coast path poem alone for the day and started some longhand notes for something new. I didn’t get very far and I’m not sure it’s really going to turn into anything… but we’ll see. It’s my writing day tomorrow so I’ll have a good chunk of time to push it a bit further and see where I get to.

In other news, today I had some really lovely feedback on the two poems I finished last week, which I very much see as being products of this new May habit, so that was encouraging. And I entered a really great-looking poetry competition. Fingers crossed!

days ten and eleven

Because I didn’t post yesterday, and Thursday’s post was written early-afternoon, I want to report here that I did finish ‘the horse poem’ – well, a workable draft, anyway: nothing’s really finished (ever?) until it’s been workshopped by poetry friends, and already I’m unsure about a couple of elements. And the title definitely isn’t right; currently it’s labouring under ‘The words I’d yet to write’ (the Ray Bradbury title just didn’t work, in the end). Still, I got it as far as I think I can for the moment, and I feel hugely pleased. That was the first poem I’ve finished since February, and one that had been on my radar to write since last summer, and writing something new after a long pause always feels very good. But then I actually finished the other poem, too! I’ve called it ‘The Cherry Tree’ and yes, it’s definitely in memoriam Dallas Willard, bless his dear heart. Again, it needs workshopping, and in fact I’ve done some tinkering on it today; but getting to two good workable drafts in one day felt a huge achievement. The effects of writing everyday are definitely cumulative: it’s always hard work, of course, but the whole thing seems to be flowing much more easily. Long may it continue.

Since then, I’ve had two slightly out of kilter days in a row: both yesterday and today I’ve done my twenty minutes’ poetry writing (tinkering with ‘The Cherry Tree’ and working on a new/old draft about walking the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path), but not after my morning trigger. Yesterday I made the mistake of opening up my browser – this is a new temptation, only possible if I’m working on a draft on my laptop rather than longhand notes – and that was that, pretty much: twenty minutes of reading twitter instead of writing. Oh well. So I started my lunchbreak with twenty minutes of writing instead (which is why I then didn’t post here). Then this morning I had a lie-in – it is the weekend, after all – and made the decision that I’d do the same again today: I was keen to get out of the house to get on with what I’d planned. Obviously writing later in the day is much better than not writing at all, but I need to be careful not to let this happen too much: part of the strength of a habit is its being anchored in something else that happens every day, no matter what, and I’m still building up my daily poetry-writing muscles. And that morning window is such delicious writing time…

I was going to write about a brilliant (guided) evening walk in Sydenham Hill Wood that I went on on Thursday night, but dinner’s calling me. More on Monday (Sunday is officially no-screen day).