What I Learned By Turning My Writing Into A Word Cloud

As things wind down for Christmas, I’ve been having bit of fun creating a word cloud from my debut poetry collection, How to Lose Your Home & Save Your Life.

The idea came via Jo Bell – UK poet, Canal Laureate and creator of the poetry and writing blog ’52’ – who recently shared a word cloud of her forthcoming collection, ‘Kith’, on Facebook.

It’s a bit of fun but also a great way to get a fresh perspective on existing writing. The cloud allows me to see the entire collection in a snapshot – the more prominent words tell me if I’m hitting the mood and tone I’m looking for and also give me a sense of which words or literary devices I may rely on a little too heavily, eg. if the word ‘Like‘ features prominently, then it may be time to cut back on the use of simile. We all have a go-to writing toolbox and a good way to hit the refresh button on our work is to kick away a few of those verbal crutches!

What I didn’t expect – and am really enjoying – is discovering little mini poems in the juxtapositions of the cloud’s random arrangement:

– Think blue drumming words;
– Tree’s hands fold half-beat whispers;
– Old wind-eyes walk shadow morning;
– Ghost years ground skin, beginning bodies wings;
– Sea silence, speak yellow.

These conjour strange and curious images – perfect as idea prompts for new writing!

If you’d like to try this writing tip, check out word cloud creators Wordle and Tagxedo. I liked Tagxedo because it offers a choice of shapes and pretty colours PLUS whenever I changed the font, it created a completely different arrangement, with lots of new mini poems waiting to be found.

Book Cover Photography: Jana Heimanis

Ever since I began promoting the launch of my debut poetry collection, I’ve been receiving compliments for the beautiful book cover photography and I thought it was high time I introduced the woman behind the photo: Jana Heimanis.

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Jana is an inveterate globe-trotter, taking photos wherever she goes; when she posted pics from a trip to Iceland, I saw the image above and something clicked.

I’ve talked before about what makes a good book cover and, as I started to think about what the cover of my own book should be, asked other writers about their thoughts on this part of the publishing process. Yvonne Cullen, poet and creative writing teacher extraordinaire, gave me a beautiful benchmark for what a book cover should do:

“The key in my mind… is a sense that image plus book equal more than the sum of their parts. The reader has to go somewhere, imaginatively… ideally, right into the emotional landscape of the book, to join image and title together.”

For me, Jana’s image does just that – capturing the sense of loss at the heart of the collection but also reminding us that in the bleakest of moments, there is the potential for great beauty. Although taken in Iceland, people keep recognising parts of Ireland in it and I love that it has a universal quality that speaks to everyone.

Originally from Sydney, Australia, I met Jana through mutual friends, from working at the same architectural practice in Dublin (but at different times) and I’ve always loved her spirit of adventure.

So I asked her to tell us a little bit more about herself – work, travel, photography and, of course, poetry.

Jana, tell us a little bit about your background:

I trained as an Australian architect at the University of Sydney, and the University of Newcastle (the one in Australia). Worked in Sydney for several years in small architecture firms on local jobs and large firms on foreign jobs. Found my way to Dublin, spent three months architecturally drafting, then was recruited by a dear friend, met fashion designer, John Rocha, and began a working collaboration that has lasted ten years.

How did you start taking photographs?

It probably started with holidays in Australia, bookended by (mostly long) road trips – the world framed by the back-seat window. Photography is most certainly a part of travel for me. I travel solo a lot, both for work and for curiosity’s sake. Taking photos is a bit like having a traveling companion, like pointing out the new things, funny things, beautiful and different things ‘hey, check that out’.

Also my training and work, being about detail and beautiful things, has a huge influence on what catches my eye – I like to put composition, texture, colour, and a story in the frame.

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What do you love about photography?

I am a bit of a point and shooter, I like the simplicity of it. I have a good digital camera, with a nice lens and a zippy zoom, and some other features I’m not that au fait with. I love that I can use that simple tool to collect images that work. I love that it can be accidental, that moment, or place. I love creating a composition that satisfies, is possibly beautiful, is balanced, hints at a conversation, tells a story without words.

What’s your favourite place from your travels?

This year I had a number of wonderful road/train trips. Iceland was spectacular, icy and remote and just awesome – your photo is from the very North of the country, a farm that found itself sunk lower than the water table after one of the frequent earthquakes that happen when there are volcanoes around. Here in Australia, I took the smaller roads from Sydney to Melbourne and back via the Great Ocean Road. Other favourite places – Kyoto (temples, the buses, kimonos along the river at dusk), Istanbul (mosques, snakes in jars, markets, carpets, sensory overload), Leon, Sevilla, Cork, Berlin… sure, I find discovering a new city to be very exciting.

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You must have have some good travel stories…

So many, and I’m not a good teller of stories… Some snippets? Sharing a stranger’s sandwich on a train in Poland because he wasn’t convinced my plain bread roll was ‘lunch’; rowing a boat in the Arctic circle off the coast of Norway; hitch-hiking to avoid rambling bulls in Latvia….can we say that my pictures tell better stories? Instagram has a few of my latest tales…

I know you’re also a reader of poetry – any Aussie favourites we should check out?

Banjo Patterson – a classic. Responsible for Waltzing Matilda, but I like him for Been there Before, and Clancy of the OverflowGwen Harwood and Paul Kelly – ok, he’s a songwriter and musician, but I reckon he’s a poet.

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Discover more of Jana Heimanis’ beautiful travel photography on Instagram or at her forthcoming web-site: www.jana.net.au.

All photographs © Jana Heimanis.

 

 

Mslexia Poetry Competition 2014: After The Storm – The Story of a Poem

Back in September – yes, I am woefully slow at reportage, one of many reasons I am a poet, not a journalist – I had a poem published in Mslexia, the UK literary magazine for women who write. The poem, After The Storm, was selected as a finalist in the Mslexia Poetry Competition 2014, judged by poet, Wendy Cope.

People often ask where ideas for poems come from and this one I remember quite clearly.

I was in Gothenburg, Sweden, kipping on the sofa of a friend’s house-swap – a top floor flat, six flights up, next to a monument on a hill, surrounded by trees. It was early July, thunderous, all the windows flung wide to gather scraps of fresh air.

As I lay there in the darkness, the wind got up and tree shadows scurried across the ceiling, lit by street lamps; it seemed as though they had invaded the room, the hallway, the kitchen, the attic overhead.

Too lazy to get up and search for pen and paper, I fumbled at the coffee table for my phone and by its tepid glow tapped out a draft text: “The trees are children running through the house.” Then turned over and went to sleep.

In the morning, I found the text and the seed was planted.

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My Swedish jaunt was very productive on the poetry front – I came home with the bones of 4 or 5 poems laid down. Sometimes, you just need to step out of familiar surroundings to open the door to new ideas.

The ending was prompted by another poem I’d read – I can’t remember the name of the poet or poem, sadly (Reasons I’m Not A Journalist #573) but the image that stayed with me was one of absence, in the dent of a pillow where someone had lain, and it was the sense of emptiness as a concrete presence I wanted to evoke at the end.

Mslexia holds a very special place in my heart, as the first print magazine to publish my work, when I came second in their inaugural Mslexia Short Story competition, in 2009. I can still remember the phone call: I shot out of my chair and performed an arrhythmic celebration in the medium of dance around the kitchen, to the utter disdain of the neighbour’s cat, lounging on the window cill.

It’s a beautiful journal, with lots of valuable, practical advice for writers and I was delighted when the latest issue hit my doorstep. I’ve sent work to the poetry competition in the past and this is the first time I’ve made the cut – one of 20 final poems out of 2000+ entries. Wendy Cope talks of her process for choosing the winning poems on the Mslexia competition page and also provided feedback for all the finalists in the print edition:

“It isn’t easy to describe a storm in a poem because it is such a familiar subject; I can’t help thinking of Ted Hughes’ ‘This house has been far out at sea all night’. But Angela T Carr has found her own way of doing it in ‘After the Storm’ without sounding derivative. This is another poem about bereavement. The quiet after the storm suggests the quiet after the funeral, when the person left behind has to ‘fold around’ the new emptiness.”

Yup, I’ll take that. Thank you, Wendy!

After the Storm is included in my debut collection launching in Dublin, next week.