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Swallow (early draft)

Nadia Saward graduated from King’s College London with a BA in English Language and Literature. She is about to start an MA in Creative Writing Poetry at Royal Holloway, University of London.



The red dirt of the pyramids
was still under my wing, when I found
a town with roofs like small mountains
and a crying prince.

And a crying prince
with September- blue eyes, only wished
for blindness. I gave it to him.
A sapphire for your son, a ruby for your mother.

A sapphire for your son, a ruby for your mother,
goes my song. I drop jewels down
coughing chimneys- in the morning
they will think the stars have fallen.

They will think the stars have fallen,
and thank their gods.
I nestle in the hollow between your legs,
and wait for night to come.

And wait for night to come,
to visit the woman at the window,
time scars her face. Hands whittled to bone.
I coat her skin with gold.

I coat her skin with gold,
let it gather, light as snow
on the sill, until all she sees is
the sun’s widening mouth.

The sun’s widening mouth
brings me no warmth.
Cold feathers my throat.
In the morning they will find me,
a beggar at his feet.


The process of writing every poem is different. It depends on the poem.

For me, the writing process can take two distinctive forms. In the first form, and probably the one that happens the most, I will think of a good phrase or image. Then, I will have to hurriedly note it down, most likely on my phone. I have noticed this tends to happen the most when I’m on the tube, in the shower or trying to sleep. In other words, these images appear when my mind is idle. When I decide to turn this phrase into a larger poem (which can happen weeks after I initially think of it) I use it as the origin, or centre point. I let the poem build around it.

In the second form of my writing process, research comes first. This is often the case when I am writing for competitions, where they need a poem on a certain theme or in a particular style. I sit down and brainstorm. This is process through which Swallow came about. I knew I wanted to write a poem from the perspective of the swallow in Oscar Wilde’s short story, The Happy Prince, which was a favourite bed-time tale of mine growing up, but no lines immediately rushed out to me.

So, I sat down and read through the work of some of my favourite poets. Kei Miller, Robin Robertson, Mona Arshi and Liz Berry always help to inspire me. My first stop is always Kei Miller. His writing is faultless, with line breaks that never feel artificial, and humorous, vivid language. My favourite poem of his is called ‘If this short poem stretches’, it ends with a wonderful line which I always try to remember when I have writer’s block: ‘The poem sings its own song, / reaches its own end in its own time.’

When I’m struggling to find the right words, I look to Robin Robertson. In ‘Swimming in the Woods’ he describes the act of someone swimming; ‘When she stopped, the water stopped, / and the sun re-made her as a tree,/ banded and freckled and foxed.’ Although there is nothing extraordinary about the words he uses, together they create a subtle, haunting image.

Books to inspire you: Nadia's recommended reading.
Books to inspire you: Nadia’s recommended reading.

Before I know it I’ve got a phrase here, an image there. Writing Swallow, I realised that I wanted to try and write this poem in a specific form, where the last line of each stanza is repeated in the first line of the next stanza. I think it is a form of pantoum, but I have taken some licence in the structure. Trying to fit my ideas into this format proved difficult. I was aware that the repeated lines needed to carry different meanings depending on their placement in the stanza. Otherwise, the repetition would feel drawn out and heavy. Even in this draft, I think I am yet to achieved the desired effect.

Hopefully, once this poem is completed, it will be the first in a collection. In an attempt to draw myself away from writing what I know, which is an easy trap to fall into, Swallow is the first poem in a series that will take the minor characters from famous fairy tales, be they human or animal, and give them a voice. Writing about these characters will be a way for me to mesh stories that are familiar in my imagination with a difficult poetic exercise, and I can only hope good things will come of it.

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Blog posts on King’s English represent the views of the individual authors and neither those of the English Department, nor of King’s College London.

Dissertation stories: Don Quixote to cross-stitch

William Burgess and Felicity H-Mackie of the MA 18th Century Studies course organised a conference in conjunction with the Centre for Enlightenment Studies, as an opportunity for 18th Century MA researchers from King’s and Queen Mary to discuss the first stages of their dissertations with students and staff. They share with us here their dissertation research journeys.

A Rake's Progress (plate 8) 1735-63 William Hogarth 1697-1764 Transferred from the reference collection 1973
A Rake’s Progress (plate 8) 1735-63 William Hogarth 1697-1764 Transferred from the reference collection 1973

by William Burgess, MA 18th Century Studies

Like all good research journeys, my dissertation started with the discovery of a quotation that upended everything I thought I knew about literature.

Following my BA graduation, I spent the summer reading Samuel Johnson’s 1759 novel Rasselas. Aside from getting a lot of stick from my friends (most of whom were taking it easy with some crime fiction or re-reading Harry Potter) reading the novel revealed some unsettling complications to my idea of what literature means.

“If we speak with rigorous exactness, no human mind is in its right state. There is no man whose imagination does not sometimes predominate over his reason, who can regulate his attention wholly by his will […] all power of fancy over reason is a degree of insanity.”

Samuel Johnson is telling us that everyone, to some degree, is a bit ‘insane’. Not only that, but – as he goes on to insist – the act of writing fiction is by definition slightly mad.

Maybe I’m just making excuses for my previous naivety here, but I think the pedagogy of English Literature encourages you to read deliberateness and intent into every syllable of the written word. Close-reading, syntactic analysis, and looking for internal evidence of intertext was certainly not discouraged, and during my undergraduate study I found myself buying into the Enlightenment myth that everyone wholly means what they say.

Rasselas shook this conceit of mine to the core, and aside from its inconvenient timing (where were you before my finals, Johnson?) it has affected the way I’ve approached literature ever since. How could one of the leading intellectuals in an ostensible age of reason say that every writer was mad? If no one’s ‘mind is in its right state’, whose writing can we trust?

These were, and have remained, the originating questions of my dissertation project. I think they’ve endured for me partly because they behave very differently when you apply them to different genres of writing.

In court cases, for example, the conversation is very explicitly all about answering these questions. But what happens when the plaintiff decides to publish an account, and that account is the only record that survives? Can we take their word for it, or can we read the defendant’s voice between the lines? What about medical case histories? The physician is a trained professional, of course, but what assumptions are they making about a patient’s body or mind? Is the patient being honest in their interview?

As you can see, Johnson provokes more questions than answers. Nevertheless, as my dissertation stands now, these questions all seem to be organising themselves around the idea of self-authorisation, of personal subjective truth versus a conception of common sense, and I think this is where the project will be heading.

Don Quixote tilting at windmills, Terry Gilliam
Don Quixote ’tilting at windmills’. Concept art for The Man Who Killed Don Quixote film (Directed by Terry Gilliam, 2018).

One aspect – maybe even a governing principle – that I’ve not mentioned yet is Cervantes’ Don Quixote, whose hero has been watching venerably over my whole project. The novel is all about these same ideas of what madness is, self-authorisation, subjective truth and empirical inadequacy. The more you look, these themes abound in eighteenth century literature.

At the moment, I’m hoping to bring together a number of different genres – specifically those court cases and case histories related to madness – and navigate them using the near-ubiquitous themes of eighteenth-century quixotism. So far, it seems to be shedding a lot of helpful light on an area at the centre of how the period regarded, authored and questioned itself – but, as Johnson tells us, nothing is really what it seems.


'I cross stitch so I don't kill people', pattern from CrossStitchHobbyShop on Etsy.
‘I cross stitch so I don’t kill people’, pattern from CrossStitchHobbyShop on Etsy.

by Felicity H-Mackie, MA 18 Century Studies

Re-writing someone else’s words in your own handwriting changes them a little. Plotting those words out and stitching them onto a piece of fabric does other funny things.

I once reinterpreted some lines from Annabella Blount’s ‘A Cure for Poetry’ (c. 1741), for an alternative assessment.

‘Where poets stood before receipt-books stand,

Silk, thread and worsted are my next demand,

And chairs and stools increase beneath my labouring hand.’

(Anabella Blount, ‘A Cure for Poetry’, Eighteenth Century Women Poets: An Oxford Anthology, ed. Roger Lonsdale)

I embroidered these lines in backstitch and decorated the border of the fabric with traditional cross-stitched motifs taken from eighteenth-century needlework samplers. While it was very basic work and has since been put into storage (so no photos unfortunately!) it was challenging, and forced me to approach my ideas about texts and literary creativity from a completely new perspective. In addition to playing with the relationship between form and content, I gained a better understanding of the skill involved in fine needlework and found that it requires serious investments of time, physical effort and mental energy.

Texts and textiles both tell stories, and needlework in particular (compared with dress-making or knitting for example) has a clear affinity with words and language. Embroidered poetry and biblical quotations frequently appear in eighteenth-century samplers and the device has evolved into the trend for ironic cross-stitched phrases which appear on Pinterest and Etsy today. Modern textile art tells complex stories and takes highly various forms, from personal arts and crafts work, to large-scale Craftivism (see the guerrilla knitting movement Knit the City).

Photo of Yarn-knot tree, by Shrewdcat, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons.
Photo of Yarn-knot tree, by Shrewdcat, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons.

Something about the physical engagement and accessibility of textile work is clearly attractive, and the subversive humour of sassy cross-stitch patterns has encouraged more people to sew purely for decorative purposes.

These patterns subvert the values signified by the traditional needlework sampler, so renowned for teaching girls proper feminine behaviour and accomplishment. They reclaim a skill and push against a narrative which designates embroidery as an activity which historically oppressed women’s bodies and minds.

But is the characterisation of eighteenth century fine embroidery as an oppressive activity entirely accurate or universal? Who exactly produced needlwork, and when and why did it come to be so closely associated with exemplary feminine behaviour? When the material and the literary are combined, the creative and conceptual potential of both mediums are enhanced. Any readings of these text-textiles hold implications for both the history of the book and the study of women’s histories.

After completing that first poetry-embroidery project, I began to pay attention to literary words in material forms and the meanings which could be read in these material-textual relationships. My ideas about texts and where they could be found changed, and I formed ideas which I feel can contribute to, and perhaps complicate, the critical conversation about the recovery and rediscovery of women’s writing and art. In my final dissertation, I’m using these thoughts as a starting point for discussing issues concerning authority and material form, with regard to women’s authorship and creative production in the eighteenth century.

Girls just want to have fundamental human rights
Subversive embroidery, Via Nordic Craft blog

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Blog posts on King’s English represent the views of the individual authors and neither those of the English Department, nor of King’s College London.


The long read: Just Women and Violence

by Ella Parry-Davies, PhD researcher funded by King’s College London and the National University of Singapore, working on performance, place, and memory, and Myka Tucker-Abramson, Lecturer in Contemporary Literature. With a postscript from Kélina Gotman,  Lecturer in Theatre and Performance Studies

“The male is a biological accident: the Y (male) gene is an incomplete X (female) gene, that is, it has an incomplete set of chromosomes. The male is an incomplete female, a walking abortion, aborted at the gene stage. To be male is to be deficient, emotionally limited; maleness is a deficiency disease and males are emotional cripples.

SCUM is too impatient to wait for the de-brainwashing of millions of assholes. Why should the swinging females continue to plod dismally along with the dull male ones? Why should the fates of the groovy and the creepy be intertwined? A small handful of SCUM can take over the country within a year by systematically fucking up the system, selectively destroying property, and murder.”

(Valerie Solanas, “The Scum Manifesto”, 1967)

“If sexism is a by-product of capitalism’s relentless appetite for profit then sexism would wither away in the advent of a successful socialist revolution. If the world historical defeat of women occurred at the hands of an armed patriarchal revolt, then it is time for Amazon guerrillas to start training in the Adirondacks.”

(Gayle Rubin, “The Traffic in Women”, 1975)

“Homoexplosion is a radical queer/ trans group of fly fatherfuckers. We advocate people fucking in the street and burning shit—especially cops.”

(NYC Queers Bash Back Against NYPD, 2009)

Image via AP: Two protesters wearing black carry a black banner emblazoned with 'Queers Bash Back: Bash Any Face the Many'
Image via AP, 2009: Two protesters wearing black carry a black banner emblazoned with white text that reads ‘Queers Bash Back: Harm any face the many’.

We live in a moment of amplified violence, or at least a time in which certain kinds of violence have become more visible. New forms of surveillance, and heightened attention to the reported arming of both so-called individual terrorists or terrorist cells, as well as hostile nations, often speaks less to new threats than to carefully crafted states of emergency. However, at the same time, we are seeing an increasing incidents of hate crimes, intensified and increasing police brutality and state violence, and the continued expansion of the War on Terror.

Continue reading The long read: Just Women and Violence

Leaves of Silk

by Clare BrantProfessor of Eighteenth-Century Literature and Culture and Co-Director, Centre for Life-Writing Research

The Dear Diary exhibition is now open, until 7th July! Promotion got underway well before opening, with various radio features including Radio 2’s Jonathan Ross Show on 4th May, and  BBC London, Monocle Radio, Radio Oxford and other outlets; on 3rd June, I take Dear Diary to Radio 4’s Saturday Live show (listen from 9:00 BST).

One publicity commission was for the Sunday Times series ‘6 of the Best’. I thought long and hard and put together a list only to discover that ‘Best’ is determined by what the picture editor thinks can be illustrated best. Several suggestions hit the cutting room floor. One was  British artist Ian Breakwell’s visual diary – an idea I owe to Lucy Bayley, a PhD student at the ICA (thank you, Lucy). You can see a selection of Breakwell’s work at the Tate, including The Walking Man Diary (1975-1978).

A diary’s lure of intimacy…

Breakwell has made various experiments with the diary form. One of the most compelling is the photographic diary he made of an unknown man who regularly walked past Breakwell’s flat in Smithfield in the City of London, where from his third floor window the artist was often looking out. The images all have the same vantage point and the same mysterious subject; the passing of time is captured through the diary unevenly, so that some photographs are taken seconds apart while others are separated by months. The resulting pattern of similarity and difference, heightened by collage, plays with a diary’s lure of intimacy: by denying us even incremental knowledge, Breakwell makes his diary intriguingly baffling.

W.P. Barbellion
W.P. Barbellion, or Bruce Cummings, unknown photographer, via Wikimedia Commons

Another suggestion was W.P. Barbellion, The Journal of a Disappointed Man (1919). This diary has an extraordinary story. The author’s real name was Bruce Cummings; he made his pseudonym from Wilhelm, Nero and Pilate as examples of the most wretched people to have lived. Continue reading Leaves of Silk

Painting in circles and loving in triangles: the Bloomsbury Group’s queer ways of seeing

Featured image: Duncan Grant © Tate

by Ellie Jones, PhD researcher funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Tate. Her thesis centres on expressions and perceptions of queerness and race in early twentieth century British art.

“Dearest, at this moment I would give my soul to the Devil if I could kiss you and be kissed.”

In the summer of 1908, the Bloomsbury artist Duncan Grant wrote anguished letters to his sometime lover and lifelong friend, the economist John Maynard Keynes. In the infancy of their romance, the pair had been forced to spend time apart while Grant holidayed with family friends, a period of separation which served only to deepen their emotional closeness. Absence, after all, makes the heart grow fonder.

Grant’s letters expose a longing for the comfort of commonality, the security we find in shared experiences. He needed the company of someone who understood what it meant to be a gay man living in Britain before decriminalisation in 1967. “How much I want to scream sometimes here for want of being able to say something I mean,” one letter reads: “It’s not only that one’s a sodomite that one has to hide but one’s whole philosophy of life; one’s feelings for inanimate things I feel would shock some people.”

Duncan Grant, Bathing, 1911 © Tate

These letters are revealing of the ways Grant linked his sense of alienation, at the hands of his sexuality, to a broader sense of difference relating to the way he perceived the world around him. He understood his queerness as a central organising structure of his vision and his personhood; his “whole philosophy of life”. By making an explicit connection between his sexual alterity and his way of seeing, he leads us to consider: in what ways do our sexual pleasures and fantasies inform the way we see the world? Continue reading Painting in circles and loving in triangles: the Bloomsbury Group’s queer ways of seeing

Interview: The Still Point

Following the successful launch of The Still Point Issue 2, we speak with Mariam Zarif, editor-in-chief 2017-2018, about the new team’s vision for the journal. Mariam is a PhD researcher in the Department of English at King’s, writing on New Woman male writers as ‘transvestities’ and the politics of cross dressing in the fin de siècle. She heads up an editorial team composed of PhD researchers at King’s, UCL, Queen Mary, and the School of Advanced Study.

Find The Still Point Journal online, on Facebook and Twitter.

The Still Point Journal

KE: Could you tell us a bit about The Still Point and how it was originally conceptualised? How is it different from other literary journals?

MZ: The Still Point is a medium that celebrates creative and innovative writing and research experiences. Founded by King’s English PhD researcher Francesca Brooks in 2015, the journal was designed to offer research students a space of ‘one’s own’, where they can reflect on their research experiences. Continue reading Interview: The Still Point

‘It’s in my diary…’

by Clare Brant, Professor of Eighteenth-Century Literature and Culture and Co-Director, Centre for Life-Writing Research

‘It’s in my diary’

is a phrase you still hear. The expression gives no clue as to whether the speaker uses a paper diary or an app, and not needing to make the distinction shows how old and new forms of diary co-exist happily. The paper appointment diary is still an everyday object – I have a Filofax I was given in the 1990s when they were fashionable and it’s still easy to buy an annual refill. Meanwhile an increasing number of apps make the diary mobile-friendly, multi-media, synchable – and, if you want to keep it private, encryptable.

Do you have a paper diary? Do you use a diary app? Do you contribute to an online diary platform? Do you do none of the above but are curious about diaries? Then put in your diary 26 May – 7 July, the dates for Dear Diary, a forthcoming exhibition at the Inigo Rooms, East Wing, Somerset House on diaries old and new. It’s a collaboration between the Centre for Life-Writing Research, which I co-direct, and the Great Diary Project, directed by Dr Polly North.

Diaries are among our most precious items of heritage… No other kind of document offers such a wealth of information about daily life and the ups and downs of human existence…

Continue reading ‘It’s in my diary…’

YouTube, iPads, and Videotape: archives of HIV/AIDS activism

Featured image: Living With AIDS (1987-1999), Gay Men’s Health Crisis records, Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library.

by Dan Udy, LAHP/ AHRC PhD researcher working on “Going Viral: Queer (Re)Mediations in the YouTube Decade”

When Sarah Schulman and Jim Hubbard began filming interviews for the ACT UP Oral History Project in 2002, the history of HIV/AIDS activism was largely consigned to videotape. Having aligned with the emergence of handheld camcorders, it was the first political movement to be documented on video and from within its ranks: amateur recordings, artist tapes, and independent TV productions all formed a staggering cultural archive that tracked how marginalized communities took healthcare, research, and advocacy into their own hands during the early years of the HIV/AIDS crisis.

NYPL ACT UP Oral History iTunes - Ann Northrop
Veteran activist and broadcaster, Ann Northrop, NYPL ACT UP Oral History Archive

For over 20 years these tapes were consigned to personal collections and institutional archives such as the New York Public Library (NYPL), where the Manuscripts and Archives Division holds the most extensive public collection of such videos in the world. Here, facsimiles of original tapes could be watched on monitors, but the analogue nature of these materials made it difficult to circulate them beyond the library’s walls. Continue reading YouTube, iPads, and Videotape: archives of HIV/AIDS activism

On the trail of Doris Lessing

by Lara Feigel, Reader in Modern Literature

My research over the last few years has taken me to some unlikely places. You wouldn’t expect to find the papers of the very British novelist Rebecca West in Tulsa, Oklahoma, or the wartime diaries and letters of Elizabeth Bowen and Graham Greene in Austin, Texas. It’s odd spending a day in London in the Blitz and then emerging out of the air-conditioned archive into the Texan heat. One evening I even found myself being taught to two-step by a cowboy alongside a couple of other British academics.

But the most adventurous research trip I’ve been on was to Zimbabwe, where I went in August on the trail of Doris Lessing. Lessing grew up in Southern Rhodesia, as it then was, on a farm in the bush. She then moved at the age of eighteen (in 1937) to the capital city of Salisbury (now Harare) where in the space of the next decade she married twice, had three children, devoted herself to communism and wrote the novel that would make her name.

The Grass is Singing, first American edition cover, 1950.
The Grass is Singing, Doris Lessing, first American edition cover, 1950.

My books seem to be becoming increasingly personal. I still tell students that it’s the text that counts and that it’s important not to use the biography as a kind of code-breaker, enabling us to work out the intention or ‘true’ meaning of the text. But I’ve abandoned my early conviction that the life is irrelevant to the work, and have started to think that often it’s the intersection between the two (the way that the work is shaped by the life and, perhaps more interestingly, the way that the life is shaped by the work) that I have most to say about. With Lessing, though, I’ve decided to take the risky step of making it autobiographical as well as biographical, bringing myself into the narrative. Continue reading On the trail of Doris Lessing

A Day in the Life of the Humanities

by Alan Read, Professor of Theatre; Lizzie Eger, Reader Emerita in Eighteenth-Century Literature; Rowan Boyson, Senior Lecturer in Eighteenth-Century Literature; Josh Davies, Lecturer in Medieval Literature; Clare Lees, Professor of Medieval Literature and History of the Language; and Ruth Padel, Poetry Fellow

Six members of the English Department reflect on three events which took place on a single day. The day was Tuesday 10 May 2016. But, as Alan Read suggests, the date itself is of little importance. The variety of connections and conversations remembered below is typical of what might be experienced, should a curious mind find themselves in College with an hour or two spare, a ready ear, and the patience to pinpoint the precious gems among the ineluctable events emails that come with an email address.

Figure 1: Pablo Neruda, Mario Vargas Llosa (seated), with Roger Caillois and Angel Rama (standing on the right), at a literary meeting at Vina de Mar (1969)
Figure 1: Pablo Neruda, Mario Vargas Llosa (seated), with Roger Caillois and Angel Rama (standing on the right), at a literary meeting at Vina de Mar (1969)

Diagonal Science

On days like this you might imagine you are in a University as it was always intended. Drifting between critical conversations, discussions, presentations, performances, poetry readings and parties, across all levels of the King’s Strand campus, the orthodoxies of subjects fall away, the expectations of expertise are confounded, the surprising connections rather than disciplinary distinctions prevail.

The early nineteenth century architecture of Robert Smirke, a distinguished architect with a somewhat unfortunate name, shimmers where it once stood solid, glimmers with the fireflies of thought and expression dancing across its static surfaces, a disorder of things you could say. Of course, the privilege to wander in this way might be rare, for students and staff alike, deadlines and demands still call. But when a college of colleagues and communities works like this the French Surrealist Roger Caillois would recognise it as a flaring of ‘Diagonal Science’. Continue reading A Day in the Life of the Humanities