Confessions of an Editor (as well as some submitting tips)

Last year I received 60 submissions for The Forgotten and the Fantastical 2 and I want to write about what the selection process was like.

First, a brief breakdown of the submissions.

Out of the 60 submissions sent to me:

10 writers didn’t read the guidelines and didn’t send in an accompanying invoice number with their submission (i.e. they didn’t buy or read the first in the series: The Forgotten and the Fantastical). I responded politely to them, suggesting they re-read the guidelines and buy a book. I don’t believe they did.

Which left me with 50 actual qualifying submissions which I will further break down into genre (I made up these categorisations by the way – they’re probably not the most elegant way to sort stories but still, they give me a rough guide. And on another note, I realize that some of these categories overlap too and the stories don’t always sit neatly in the categories. That’s all right – that’s in the nature of stories.):

UF (urban fantasy, i.e. a key element of the story was the urban/suburban milieu)

FTL (new, original story, fairy tale-like i.e. set in the world of the Grimms)

TTR (traditional tale retold in another setting/time)

SF (science-fiction)

WF (world folk or fantasy i.e. set outside Europe)

LF (literary or literary fantasy/magical realism)

UF (5)

FTL (22)

TTR (13)

SF (3)

WF (3)

L (4)

I would also like to point out that out of the 50 submissions only 2 were from men. And… there were only a handful of stories submitted by BAME women writers (I would certainly welcome more submissions from BAME writers).

So by far the most common ‘type’ of story I was sent was by writers trying to write a completely original tale. Which is interesting because I believe it is ONE OF THE HARDEST THINGS TO SUCCESSFULLY ACCOMPLISH!

The submission pile and a glass of fizz (when all the stories had been read!).

Now 50 doesn’t seem to be too much of a reading pile. However, look at it from my point of view. There is no time assigned to reading during my work day (which is now officially 6 hours per day when my children are at school). I’m too busy dealing with the other books I’m publishing (and selling) and all the other aspects of running a small press (please remember too, that I am doing all of this voluntarily – the press does not bring in enough money to pay me for my labour). So I read in snatched moments – when I’m eating my lunch, or sat waiting in my car in a car park, or (dare I mention it?) on the loo when I want to escape the noise of the telly in the late afternoon when my children come home and I’m on snack, cuddles and dispute negotiator standby.

I realize that there is a ‘slush pile reading mindset’ (i.e. I need to get this job done, and the quicker the better) and a ‘general reading/reading for pleasure mindset’. The latter is definitely more accommodating of errors, more open and more enthusiastic. The former looks at the task, well, like a task, and I was certainly aware that reading fatigue set in after I’d been reading stories for a fair while. Now, I wish this wasn’t the situation. I wish I could come to each story fresh and open, but by the nature of it being a task I cannot. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still incredibly excited when I begin to read each story, thinking This could be the one! but experience soon told me that this particular response would be in the minority. So… quite honestly, I am reading each story with a view to what is wrong with it and why I should reject it (because I know I have more in the pile than I can possibly publish).

So let me look at some of the reasons for what makes a story The one! and why I may reject a story. (And writers, please, please, please, don’t take a rejection of your story personally. The problem is numbers/volume. There are a lot of good writers and a lot of good writing around. My job is to take the best of the best [in my opinion, which is subjective, after all] and to turn it into a good, well-rounded book with a variety of stories that I think A LOT of people will want to buy and read. Because if no one wants to actually buy the book, well, the press will not survive and keep on publishing more writing.) So let’s get back to some of those things I’m looking for:

1) A strong beginning paragraph which somehow sums up the conflict and entices us in so that we want to know more about that conflict. Some of the writers who submitted stories took a couple of pages to describe the milieu and the main character’s day-to-day life before the action took place, by which time I wasn’t so interested in what the action would be. So a strong beginning gets me hooked. (I’m not saying that I don’t have the patience for a novel that takes a few pages, or even chapters, to get going, but the nature of short stories is that they’re short, so the conflict must be quickly set up.)

‘Twice my brother has lived in a cage.’

(the first line from ‘Hansel’s Trouble’ by Lindsey Watkins)

So I’m thinking, A cage? What kind of cage? And twice? Does he get out? What happened to him? I would certainly like to know more.

And what about this?

‘When Dr Yelena Ivanovna Belova first opened the door to the young woman she did not notice the bruises on either side of the woman’s neck.’

(first line from ‘Little Lost Soul’ by Marija Smits)

Are you interested in the bruises? Want to know how they got there? I’d like to think the reader would like to know more and read on…

And Julie Pemberton’s opening paragraph to her story ‘Bear, Hare and Ptarmigan’ is a perfect example of setting up a conflict (and an apparently insoluble situation) but making the reader want to know more.

2) An action-filled middle with a cohesive plot, believable characters and well-described milieu. Now, if you’re writing a TTR (traditional tale re-told) creating the milieu is a doddle. The Grimms have got it all sorted for you; likewise with the characters, they’re sorted (the characters in traditional fairy tales don’t have particular depth, but that’s because the storyteller wants you to focus on the plot, or the moral of the tale). Again, with a TTR, the plot is sorted for you. So a TTR is surely easy to write, right? Think again. I’m not going to be particularly interested in a virtually identical copy of a traditional tale. But what if you were to somehow twist the plot, to get me looking at it from another angle? And what if you manage to somehow get breastfeeding, or mothering, or the difficulties of creativity into the tale? Well, Rebecca Ann Smith and Becky Tipper did just that with the source tale, ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, and I love those authors’ stories very much. I did wonder if I should include two stories from the same source material, but as they were really very different (in theme, plot, voice and milieu) I was sure that they should both go in. And placing them at the ends of the book, I felt, gave them the space to be appreciated. (Although I realize that some readers may feel this doesn’t work, but ultimately, compiling a book is very much a subjective task!)

Another writer who successfully took a traditional tale (The Lambton Worm) and retold it, was Sarah Hindmarsh with her story, ‘The Worm’. The worm in her story was no longer a 2D stereotype, all vileness and aggression, but instead it was a much more rounded character. And Sarah’s story had a much better ending than the original, to my mind. When I read Sarah’s story, I really felt the writer understood animals, and could empathise with them – something that was borne out when I learnt more about Sarah being the owner of several animals!

And now to some plots of stories that just didn’t work for me. There were 5 stories submitted where the twist was about the heroine’s sexuality. Even in a batch of 50, having 10% of the stories with, essentially, the same twist meant that (to my mind) the twist wouldn’t surprise the reader. I suspect that having read Lindsey Watkins’ gorgeously-written story, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ in The Forgotten and the Fantastical, these writers wanted to write something on the same lines. Yes, sexuality is a theme in Lindsey’s story, but it is not the only vital theme. (Lindsey also happens to write in a rich, evocative style, which is very, very difficult to master.) And speaking of styles, the more I read Nathan Ramsden’s ‘Icarus’ the more I was impressed by the depth and mastery of the language he used. (I believe Nathan has a M.A. in medieval literature – it shows!) I would categorise ‘Icarus’ a ‘literary’ story (with an influence of myth). Nathan’s plot was compelling, taking from well-known source material, but again, he turned it into something very much his own. So… when it comes to plot I would suggest considering Orson Scott Card’s tip: reject the first idea that comes to mind. Because if it is the first idea to mind, it is very much likely to be a cliche, or unoriginal. So keep thinking, keep searching for that original, inventive plot.

Elizabeth Hopkinson is also another writer who can vividly conjure up images, with rich, gorgeous prose. Her story, ‘Reve/Revival’ was one of the first stories I read, and when I came to the end of it I just knew it had to be in the book. Reading Elizabeth’s story I very much had a This is the one! experience, as I did with Deborah Osborne’s story, ‘Solstice’ which is beautifully written and vivid, and left me smiling at the end with admiration.

Anuradha Gupta’s writing also captured me from the very first, AND, she sustained the rhythmical (almost poetical) writing throughout her whole story, ‘The Jungle Goddess’. I loved its milieu and the rhythm in the writing and, again, it was a story that I knew that I wanted to publish right from the very start.

Imagery is also very important when it comes to short stories, particularly fairy tales, and the Chamber of Mirrors in ‘Mirror Mirror’ by Laura Kayne, with the idea of the princess looking at her strange ‘double’ in the mirror created a strong emotional response in me. ‘Lilasette’ by Ronne Randall, also conjured some very powerful images in my head, such that the dark queen, with her eyes of onyx, took root and inspired me to create an image of her (which ended up gracing the cover). So thanks very much to Ronne for managing to do that! ‘Fox Fires’ by Jane Wright also had some beautiful and heart-rending imagery within, and I hope you’ll agree that Emma Howitt’s illustration to accompany Jane’s story is absolutely spot-on. Jane managed to tell a sad story without it becoming overly sentimental, again, something that is very hard to do. It requires restraint and an eye for pared-back, simple language (again, something that is very difficult to successfully do).

Illustration by Emma Howitt

‘How Women Came to Love Mirrors’ by Hannah Malhotra had an utterly, fabulous premise, which, I thought, worked beautifully. (It also happens to be my husband’s favourite story in the book!) And what I liked about Finola Scott’s story ‘Paths of Desire’ was that there were older female characters in the story, and their presence gave the story real depth and an another aspect to femininity, which helped to enhance the book as a whole.

Now, on to my last point about characters… fairies. Over the years I’ve read plenty of tales with fairies who are twee and ridiculously glittery and ‘girly’, so I’ve come to the conclusion that stories about actual fairies aren’t high up on my wish list. Even a whiff of kitschy twee and I’m put off, so when Ana Salote sent me her story ‘Grimm Reality’ I read it with a certain amount of trepidation. However, this being Ana (of Oy Yew fame) I needn’t have worried. Yes, there was a tiny bit of sparkle on the fairy’s outfit but, the story was also quirky and funny, and set in an urban milieu (The Elephant and Castle, for goodness sake!) and actually, it was about capitalism, marketing and self-image in an image-obsessed world. So if you’re going to send me a story with fairies in it, cut the glitter and think Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel by Susanna Clarke, think The Spider’s Bride by Debbie Gallagher and you should be all right. (Oh, and you also can’t go wrong by reading Ana’s story and comparing it with Elizabeth Hopkinson’s deliciously baroque take on fairies too…)

3) Now to endings. I’m looking for stories where at the end, I, as the reader, feel satisfied (although it may not particularly be a happy ending). All loose ends have been tied up, but there’s still enough ‘give’ in the ending such that I can still think of the characters and what they might do in the future. Oh, and if you can happen to cause a tear to well in my eye, better still. Rachel Rivett, who wrote ‘Seal Woman’ manages this every time with her final line:

‘My seal child. My soul child. My love.’

Enough said! And if you’re still willing to send me your stories, even with the whole loo admission thing earlier on I will very gladly welcome them.

And a final tip. Read the guidelines. Read the book. Buy the book. Read this blog post. Follow the guidelines. Send me a well-rounded, complete and compelling short story/fairy tale. Not the first chapter of what could be an intriguing novel. Not a stretched-thin piece of flash fiction. And don’t send me a PDF. Or work that has been previously published. Sending chocolates won’t help, but they will make me happy (and fat).

The guidelines can be found here:

The Forgotten and the Fantastical 2 Linky

To (belatedly) celebrate the publication of The Forgotten and the Fantastical 2 I’m hosting a blog link-up on the theme of fairy tales. So if you’d like to share a review of the book, or if you’d like to write about one of the stories in the book that has touched you in some way (or you just want to discuss what fairy tales mean to you) we’d love to have you involved.

All we ask is that (technology-allowing) you insert the image/badge below at the bottom of your post and then click on the blue froggy linking button and add your link. And if you could comment on the other bloggers’ posts that would be very welcome. (Also, why not tell us about it on Twitter? We are: @MothersMilkBks.) Many thanks for taking part! (Please note that this blog link-up closes at the end of this Friday – 3rd June 2016.)

Results of the 2015 Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize

I am very, very happy to be able to announce the results of the 2015 Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize, which had as its theme ‘Love’ (in a family context). As there was an increase in the number of submissions compared with the first two years of the competition, with the quality of submissions as high as ever, the judges found it challenging (albeit in a good way) to make their choices. Keen-eyed readers will notice that this year, as well as the winning and commended pieces, as chosen by the poetry judge, Sarah James and the prose judge, Zion Lights, there is a ‘Publisher’s Choice’ as well. These were chosen by myself from the judges’ shortlist. Basically, these were pieces that I couldn’t bear to not publish in the anthology so I’ve treated myself to these “bonus” pieces.

A big thank you to all who those who bought a “something” and entered their writing. Thank you for trusting us with your precious words.

Please note: first publication of the two winning pieces will be in the summer issue of the fantastic magazine JUNO (out June 2016). We will also be publishing an anthology of all the winning, commended and ‘publisher’s choice’ pieces this autumn. Please look out for it!

Artwork by Teika Marija Smits

Poetry Category (adult)

The judge’s report is at the end of the results.


Janet — Sheila Wild



Josef — Maeve Henry

Us — Alison Jones

Poem for Imogen — Ann Abineri

Music — Joanne Adams

The Laughing Day, The Hours of Breathing — Cathy Bryant

Their House is a Slipper — Carmina Masoliver

Volume — Jan Dean

Springsong — Catherine Smith

Valentine’s Day — Karen Little

I Measure My Mother’s Love — Angi Holden

Water Baby— Karen Harvey



Now — Ute Carson

Baby — Cathy Bryant

First Night Away— Beth McDonough

My Turn — Finola Scott

Belly — Claire Stephenson

Owen Learning— Helen Curtis

Poetry Category (Children)


An Austin Morning — Alex Habeeb



Why I Write Poetry — Ruby Lamey Sarkar

Forever Love — I Rawlinson

Sisters — Charvi Jain

Get Along — TJ MacReynolds

Lanora’s Love Poem — Lanora Clarke

Prose Category

The Judge’s report is at the end of the results.


Nurturing my Darkness — Dawn Allen



Anything Could Happen — Deborah Staunton

I Am Ready — Dawn Osabwa

The Miracle of Love — Tracey Holland

My Gadabout Gran — Ann Abineri

The Lens of Love— Liz Proctor

The Swing — Rachel Patel

Mother’s Day — Rachel Newman

The Spinning — Lynn Blair

Love is — Nicky Torode



What Will Survive of Us is Love — Alison Jones

Love Ain’t Enough — Sarah Willis

Ashes— Fern Thomas

Love and Home Education — Caroline Cole

Sarah James Poetry Report

The Adult Category

Reading the entries to this competition was a delight. Family love covered grandparents, new parents and wider family. There was thought, imagination and feeling — love — in every poem. Sometimes I was close to crying, other times I could feel myself smiling.

Choosing between these poems was the hard part. I read and re-read the entries several times on different days in different places, in my head and aloud. Writing up my report, I fell more and more in love and admiration for the anthology poems – their structure, line breaks, imagery and more. Many of the poems that weren’t commended also had some beautiful lines and haunting images contained within them.


It was a close call, but in the end ‘Janet’ was the piece that stayed with me most each time. It is a beautifully spare poem, in which every word (and punctuation mark) earns its keep. I tested my own judgement. I asked myself could it hold its place against the rich lines of some of the other poems. Every time I doubted it, it answered back with an insistent yes. In just 10 lines, this poem manages the feat of both being about a very specific moment – a new Mum going to comfort her child at night – and the whole of two women’s lives as “all the women we’ll become | gather silently around us.” The focus is tight, precise and controlled. One haunting image is the moon “scuffed | and thin and over-bright.” I can imagine in a workshop, someone might query an object being both “scuffed” and “overbright”. Yet, not only can I see a bright moon that is scuffed in places by mist, I can also see new motherhood shining through – a mother’s face over-bright with joy, scuffed around the edges by tiredness. A lovely poem that wins through with its wonderfully measured quiet confidence.


‘I Measure My Mother’s Love’ is a vivid evocative poem that captures the mother’s love through her sewing. Beautifully structured, this moves through the threads, buttons and fabrics the mother used, each also evoking the person that the clothes belong to. But love is not just in the choice of materials, it is also in the actual making “In rustless needles and blood-sharp pins, | in running stitches tacking shapeless fabric | to lithesome bodies and coltish limbs.” It is also in the way that love adapts, captured wonderfully in the closing lines: “in turned down hems, let down as we grew.”

‘Us’ is a poem about ten years of marriage and “what lies hidden in our ordinary love.” It moves wonderfully from the outward reality of “our damp house, near the city, | where my uncertain self, talks us | from everywhere to somewhere” to what lies behind this: “Did you know, our suburb was a waterland.” With this line, the poem really takes off at both a literal and metaphorical level. As I read, I imagine a typical estate home that literally has been built on reclaimed floodland. Metaphorically, this analogy picks up on so much of what is extraordinary about “ordinary love.”

‘Music’ is another wonderfully spare poem that captures new motherhood: “Sometimes in the night | I forget you.” This is not a real forgetting though, more a merged existence, felt all the more in the tiredness at night when “our boundaries are as blurred | as yesterday’s dreams.” This poem took me straight back to when my own children were babies.

‘Poem for Imogen’ is another poem that not only allows a spare lines to carry its emotional weight but deepens that emotional impact by doing so. It also uses sewing/knitting both literally and symbolically, culminating in a wonderful final line for a very moving poem about losing a baby: “A dropped stitch in time”.

‘Josef’ is another very moving poem, where simple, spare and controlled lines and images enhance the emotional thrust. They also add extra strength to those few places were richer imagery is used, such as: “your neck is a daisy stem | your uncurled hand a starfish | beached.” There is so much that I admired in this poem, including the line breaks, evocative use of all the senses and a striking concluding couplet.

‘Volume’ is one of the few poems that managed the lovely feat of balancing both the joy and sadness of being a parent. Each line flows naturally from the previous, with the layout giving the words both space to breathe and space to grow into – rather as the unnamed child/children do in the poem until “the living room is full of legs.” It also neatly captures both aspects of volume: space and sound.

‘Valentine’s Day’ is very different to many of the poems that I read for the competition, and the one that really pulled off being different, right from the bold opening line and stanza: “Valentine’s Day was liver coloured…wet with deceit and drama.” At this point, I was maybe expecting a poem about the sham of February 14 and romance compared to real love. But there is far more than that to the poem, as the contrast is revealed to be to an 11-year-old daughter’s love, reacting to the loss of her father. This is a gripping and moving poem, full of drama – a drama that justifies itself because it is an 11 year old’s viewpoint.

‘Their house is a slipper’ is a poem that is every bit as warm as its opening lines suggest: “Their house is a slipper, I step inside | and it brings the comfort of a cup of tea.” Not only is a slipper comfortable, but it made me think of the nursery rhyme of the old woman who lived in a shoe. And what we have in this house is a Nan who fills it with stories, smiles and laughter. I very much felt as a reader that I was not only in this house beside the narrator, with the poem’s wonderfully real and specific details, but very much welcomed there as part of the family. I left the poem, as I suspect the narrator does the house, with a warm glow.

‘Springsong’ is a poem that I wanted to share because of its combination of accessible, simple images with a non-conventional use of language (merging words) and layout. I left this poem with a smile on my face and song inside me, as it confidently delivers the promise of its title.

‘Water Baby’ is again a poem that very much lives up to its title. It’s not unusual to find water and sea imagery connected to pregnancy and birth, and this fact makes it an all the more striking feat when such a framework is used successfully. The ‘baby swimmer’ metaphor is sustained without being over-egged from first to last line of this poem, and particularly strongly in the third stanza where “You came eagerly, | running the bow wave.”

‘The Laughing Day, the Hours of Breathing’ is a poem of opening out to the world, and as such manages to create a very full picture. The core of this poem is the narrator’s dying father. But it opens with the sound of children laughing somewhere else inside or near to the hospital and “the only time | of life when screams signify fun.” In doing so, the poem not only captures a very personal grief but also the place of that grief within the wider world. This contrast is sustained throughout the poem, where we later see nature in full beauty outside, making the loss unfolding within that hospital bed even more moving. There is some beautiful imagery in the poem too, from “His lungs were an orchestra tuning up, | his flickering tongue conducting | the bass rasps and grunts of effort” to “My father’s beard should be blossoms | or feathers, not snow. It moves to the clumsy, | clunky clockwork of lung-time.”

The Children’s Category

Judging this competition really made me think hard about the various elements that make for a good poem and how to prioritise them. There is, of course, no one recipe for success. Choosing between the commended poems was a difficult, and ultimately subjective, task, particularly when all the entries seemed full of very real love, thought and crafting. There were also some excellent attempts at rhyme and using repetitive structures.

In the end, I chose ‘An Austin Morning’ as my winner. This poem is perhaps closer to prose than many of the other commended entries. But it holds its own rhythm and creates a very clear picture of what is announced in the title. The poem uses the sense of sound, as well as sight, to make the scene come alive. It also makes good use of strong verbs, metaphors and similes. The end lines bring a very confident close to the poem.


‘Now’ gives a precise and not-overly sentimental ‘showing’ of a grandmother’s love for her grandson. I think it paints the scene with skill and care, and I am touched by the love in it.

‘First Night Away’ is a spare poem, but which conjures the sense of what it is like to have an older child go away for a night very well. I love the phrase: “All night creaks of him;” which sums up what it’s like to be a parent, anxious and disquieted by the sounds of the night while thinking of their child.

‘Belly’ is simply very different to the rest, and refreshingly so. It makes me smile and I love the last two lines (which I won’t give away here). I like the way it is about the unconditional love that a child has for us, and how this is non-judgemental and how they can help us to see (what we consider) our flaws as something altogether different, and positive.

‘Owen Learning’ is on the theme of breastfeeding, and I think the fact that it is from the grandmother’s perspective interesting. It contains some lovely images of the baby after he has fed: “the sated smile, bloated belly | of a little king;”.

‘My Turn’ is a successful poem which conjures up the scene of an elderly father struggling in the night very well. I love some of the imagery and the last line is understated yet powerful.

With the poem, ‘Baby’ I simply adore some of the imagery — the “white cloths” (terry towel nappies) as “clouds of butterflies” particularly resonated with me.

I am delighted to be able to publish all the above poems within the anthology and only wish we had room for more!

Zion Lights Prose Report

Sometimes the weeks fly by but the days are long. This is how I was feeling when I sat down with the prose entries for this writing prize, ready to immerse myself in the written worlds of the mothers who had contributed their stories, and wash away some of the day’s tribulations by doing so. What I found surpassed my expectations, as I went on one mother’s journey to another’s, their tales as varied and textured as our individual parenting journeys naturally are. Sometimes we need fresh eyes to be reminded of the beautiful moments of motherhood, and also to remember that the difficult moments will pass. I felt energised by these writing entries, and set the unread stories aside, to be approached another day with fresh eyes, and with a heart that would feel less raw to the lens of the beautiful but turbulent journey that is parenting. Then I travelled the textured road again, and was blown away by its wonders.


Nurturing My Darkness

It’s rare to read a piece of writing that touches on what one feels as a parent in this world, that connects you with the rest of humanity and makes you feel less alone. For me, Nurturing My Darkness did exactly this. ‘Take your time and breathe, mama’, it begins. ‘It’s okay’. Instantly I took a breath. I read a lot of nonfiction for my work and the open and direct, raw emotional style of this writing spoke to me in a deep way. It made me feel less alone, as I became lost and then immersed in the words this writer was offering me, those of consolation and of understanding, I wept a mother’s tears at the end. To the author I send a heartfelt thank you for this work of prose, for writing the words that every mother sometimes needs to hear on those dark days.


My Gadabout Gran

I never had grandparents, never knew them at all. This work paints a touching and nostalgic picture of the writer’s grandmother, much as I would have expected my own to be. Gran likes to travel. Gran is like a butterfly. Gran becomes a memory, captured by the writer in a wonderful vignette.

The Lens of Love

This is another raw and open emotional piece that, for me, captures the love of a mother in a very unique way. This mother feels what I feel and have felt on my parenting journey, and also captures the utterly sacrificial nature of a mother’s love. The delicate writing style is especially captivating in this piece.

The Swing

When does one become a mother? Reading this work, I felt that it happens long before the baby arrives. This mother craves her unborn baby, imagines in detail the child she longs to have but have not yet been able to conceive. I understand her longing and her need, as do so many women around the world. This writer brings those childless mothers together with her story.

Anything Could Happen

With a parent’s love also comes the difficulties – the side we don’t like to talk about, as this writer admits about her child: ‘I desperately want to like her more’. This work is bold and brave, just as this mother is fiercely determined to make the best of an incredibly difficult situation. I bow my head to her.

The Spinning

The love before children. The love of two adults caught in the magical world of each other. Then children, family, and loss. This story made me spin with its many stories, meshed and unravelling together, as families do. Wonderful storytelling.

I Am Ready is a light and positive musing on a mother’s readiness for her baby and child, for the journey we take together when we become mothers and mothered. This honest and open work provides a refreshing read.

The Miracle of Love will take you on a rollercoaster journey of grief, loss and love. I haven’t experienced this type of loss myself but of course we will all go through it some time – parental loss is very real and also very much something that we don’t talk about. I appreciated the frank tone of this work, and the sharing of the story.

Mother’s Day tells a similar tale of mourning and yearning, but in a different way. There is loss and sadness, but also acceptance. I felt that a powerful process was tackled by this powerful work of prose.

Love Is… paints a wonderful picture of everyday parenting moments that we don’t always get the chance to savour. I enjoyed reliving some surprisingly similar moments through this work, and the warm idea of my child ‘curled up against [my future] middle aged spread’.


What Will Survive of Us is Love is a beautifully poetic paean to the life of a long-term couple with young children and I was glad to see the author celebrating the every day joys of what many think of as a stagnant time in a couple’s life.

Although our family don’t home educate, the piece Love and Home Education spoke to me as, ultimately, the piece is about making decisions that are hard because close family members disagree with our choices. It’s about standing strong, making those decisions anyway, and having the grace to accept that others may think differently, and that that’s okay.

Love Ain’t Enough expresses the notion that the word ‘love’ is very much over-used today. And yet, our love for our children can be very strong. What the author is looking for is a “love PR guru” – which I very much like the idea of!

Ashes is a gentle and beautiful recounting of the loss of a grandmother and the scattering of her ashes. It is well-written and powerful in an understated way, and reminds me of the importance of family at the end of one’s life, at the ultimate transformative experience, death.

Again, I’m so happy to be able to include all the above prose pieces in the anthology and am looking forward to publishing these pieces.

Highlights of 2015 and some of our favourite books

It’s been an age since we’ve had a new post so I will do my best to do a succinct round-up of our 2015 highlights.

Fireworks image by Teika Bellamy

To date, 2015, was our most intense publishing year, with four books being published: The Forgotten and Fantastical, Hearth, Oy Yew and The Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize Anthology 2014: The Story of Us. My youngest was at home with me for most of that time, and so I have to remind myself that it was quite a feat to even produce these four books while looking after him and running a household!

Financially, Mother’s Milk Books is run very much as a break-even affair, which means that pre-orders and trade sales to authors and shops etc. ensure that I manage to pay the costs of printing. However, in June this year I realized that we wouldn’t have enough money to cover the costs of printing of Oy Yew, so I emailed out an SOS to our newsletter subscribers. I was heartened by the amount of support (financial, practical and emotional) we were given and due to this support it got us through a tough time. Every month since June has continued to be difficult (we REALLY need to make more sales) but fingers-crossed we will be able to “keep on keeping on”. With SEVEN books being published next year, with a bit of luck our sales figures will increase. These are the seven titles I am getting very excited about: Echolocation by Becky Cherriman, The Forgotten and Fantastical 2, Maysun and the Wingfish by Alison Lock, Handfast by Ruth Aylett and Beth McDonough, Baby X by Rebecca Ann Smith, Nondula by Ana Salote and The Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize Anthology 2015: Love.

2015 was also the year I received the Women in Publishing’s New Venture Award. Here is what I put together for the press release (which, ironically, got buried here in The Bookseller, but which will, hopefully, be seen here):

“I am delighted to be the recipient of the Women in Publishing’s New Venture Award for pioneering work on behalf of under-represented groups in society, particularly so because having been in the publishing business for four years now I am very aware of how challenging the book trade is! Mothers (and breastfeeding mothers and children) shouldn’t be an ‘under-represented’ group in society, but sadly we are because, all too often, our stories aren’t heard or are dismissed as being merely about ‘women’s issues’ and therefore niche and uncommercial. I am extremely proud to be part of the diverse and thriving UK independent publishing scene, which dares to take editorial and financial risks to ensure that vital, unheard stories get told, particularly since Nottingham, where we are based, has just now become a UNESCO City of Literature. My hope is that this award will go someway to highlighting the excellent work of my authors, illustrators and co-editors so that Mother’s Milk Books can continue to keep publishing books for many more years to come.”

My statement got me thinking more and more about ‘unheard stories’ and so I asked my authors and co-editors to list some of their favourite books of 2015, which had been mainly published by indie presses and were, by and large, given little recognition by the national press. I hope you will add some of these to your 2016 to-read pile!

Cathy Bryant: Selkie Singing at the Passing Place, poetry by Sarah Miller and Melanie Rees. It’s the best BOGOF deal I’ve ever experienced. Though Hearth by Sarah James and Angela Topping is up there when it comes to collaborations.

Beth McDonough: Nell Nelson at Happenstance is doing amazing work, and publishing beautiful pamphlets. In her reading windows, she gives so much of herself to support poets. I’ve just read Jim Carruth’s Killochries (Freight Books). Described as a ‘verse novella’, it’s very wonderful.

Alison Lock: The Emma Press for tales of myths and legends for children with Falling Out of the Sky.

Angela Topping: Ruth Stacey’s Queen, Jewel, Mistress: A History of the Queens of England & Great Britain In Verse (Eyewear)

Becky Cherriman: I’ve just read Sumia Sukkar’s, The Boy From Aleppo who Painted The War (Eyewear). An emotive portrait of the war in Syria condensed into one family’s experience. Telling the story from the perspective of an innocent with flaws (the protagonist is on the autistic spectrum) and a unique way of seeing the world makes us focus on what counts in war – people. It couldn’t be more relevant.

Sarah James: Ruth Stacey’s Queen, Jewel, Mistress: A History of the Queens of England & Great Britain In Verse (Eyewear). Each queen is a given a distinct voice, in poems that take a range of poetry forms and styles befitting their time. They’re women’s viewpoints, but the worlds they belong to and are set in mostly men’s; its depiction therefore unconfined. The imagery is wide-ranging: nature, animals, birds, blood, war, lust, secrecy, politics, violence and the hidden messages of nursery rhyme. The poems are full of memorable lines and metaphors. Some of the poems are thoughtscapes, others landscapes. Some carry a narrative, others spark against each other to create a bigger story. All of them are very human, and very much recommended.

Mark Goodwin’s Steps (Longbarrow Press) is one of those beautiful collections that somehow manages the feat of being in constant movement (word play, riff, layout) while also capturing the stillness of each precisely observed moment and creating a sculpture of words on the page. These are poems of all the senses alert and voiced, with energy in the lay-out, punctuation and varying line lengths to create pieces that are quietly adventurous and daring, and always uncluttered. All of the poems are alive with beautifully stunning but entirely unfussy or unforced images. A very beautiful and enjoyable collection to read. Robert Peake’s The Knowledge (Nine Arches Press) has been a delight. These poems are the kind that create their own space of existence, no matter how noisy a place or head space I was reading in. To bring such calmness and focus to a reader reading in unideal surroundings is no mean feat, perhaps enhanced by the fact every poem feels complete, crafted and sufficient in itself, not needing the reader to move on at any pace other than what comes naturally; this what comes naturally being subtly and imperceptibly set up by the poems. From closely observed nature, Peake links to philosophical insights, human needs and warm humour. Family relationships, not belonging and the surreal humour of English phrases can also be found. This is, in fact, a wonderfully wide-ranging and encompassing collection of poems which resonate after putting the book down.

Rebecca Ann Smith: I am very much looking forward to reading Erinna Mettler’s Starlings early in the new year, it’s very nearly reached the top of the reading pile. Starlings is similar in structure to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas in that it is made up of linked short stories. It has some fabulous reviews, and is published by Brighton-based indie Revenge Ink. Mettler, who’s also written award-winning short stories, is online at

Ana Salote: I love Liz Brownlee’s Animal Magic, Poems on a Disappearing World. Liz has astonishing empathy for the animal world. She doesn’t just observe, she inhabits her subjects. She cares deeply about animals and makes us care by homing on the essential character of each species. Diversity is more than the mere shuffling of DNA. We share her fascination with the results of that process. The fine-tuning of the animate to its surroundings produces delightful quirks of design; each one individual, precious and irreplaceable. She expresses all of this in language which is exquisite, poignant and frequently witty. It can be read by children and adults with equal enjoyment. I can’t think of a better way to educate children about wildlife and conservation.

Tom Bellamy (co-editor and founder): These are very funny: How To Be A Public Author by Francis Plug (by Paul Ewen and published by Galley Beggar Press) and We Go To The Gallery: A Dung Beetle Learning Guide by Miriam Elia (Dung Beetle Books).

Rebecca Bellamy (beta-reader and young editor extraordinaire): Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery and Oy Yew by Ana Salote.

Jerome Bellamy (tea boy): Puff The Magic Dragon.

Teika Bellamy: Sara Maitland’s Moss Witch (Comma Press), Angela Slatter’s Sourdough and Other Stories (Tartarus Press). I was profoundly moved by Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. I was also glad to read Smallcreep’s Day by Peter Currell Brown (published by Pinter & Martin) and I can see why it was described as a masterpiece. There is so much in it that is still so relevant to society today. I’ve also just now started reading Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed which is simply stunning. Also, for budding writers I highly recommend Orson Scott Card’s writing guides: Characters and Viewpoint and How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy (which is where I first found out about Butler’s books; Card is a big fan of hers). Poetry-wise I very much enjoyed Only The Flame Remains by Adam Horovitz (it is beautiful and haunting) and also Destroyed Dresses by Cara Brennan (Valley Books) touched me with its gentle, bittersweet charm.

Thank you for all the support you have given us throughout 2015. I wish you and your families all a happy, healthy and creativity-filled 2016!

Interview with Jessica Bradley, winner of the Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize (prose category)

As we celebrate the publication of our latest book The Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize Anthology 2014: THE STORY OF US I’m delighted to be able to share this interview on the blog. A huge thank you to Jessica for taking the time to share her thoughts on motherhood, writing, and what it means to win this prize. 

Jessica with children (photo courtesy Jessica Bradley)

1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I live in the north of England with my husband and our two girls who are aged 2 and 5. I am currently in the second year of a PhD in which I am studying how people communicate multilingually within the arts, specifically in street theatre production and performance.

Being a mum to two little ones and a PhD student means that life is certainly never boring. I have lots of inspiration to be creative, but not so much in terms of time! I hope that although juggling the two different parts of my life can make for an extremely busy time, my children will understand more about the joy of learning and the possibilities that are open to them. I enjoy reading, poetry, crafts and visual arts. I count myself incredibly lucky to be able to work doing something I enjoy and to live near my family who are supportive. As a family we try and spend as much time as possible outdoors and we are fortunate in that we live only a short drive from lots of beautiful countryside.

2. How, when and why did you first start writing?

I think I have always enjoyed writing in some form, certainly when I was a young child I would write little stories for my friends and family. I find writing a very satisfying way to communicate and to play with ideas and stories.

 3. How often do you write?

Technically I write every day, as my PhD requires me to do so! I believe that the more you write, the more you can write and I try to mix up the kind of writing I do. I write for a couple of work-related blogs, I write my research journal, I do my academic work of course but then, when I have the time and the inspiration takes me, I do some for myself.

4. What made you decide to enter the Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize?

Having left my long-term job in September 2014 to become a postgraduate student and after just about coming out of the fog that is sleepless nights and small babies I found myself reflecting a lot on the change in my situation and this process of reflection led me to start to consider some of the themes I was presented with through thinking about my own experiences. Motherhood is wonderful and yet also all-consuming in ways I hadn’t expected before I had children myself. I find it to be a source of never-ending inspiration: it pushes me to write about it and to explore my emotions and experiences creatively through writing. I needed somewhere to ‘place’ this kind of work and to see it as a creative output of its own. I saw the opportunity to submit a piece of writing for this competition on the Mslexia website and thought it would be worth a try.

5. How did it feel when you’d heard that you’d won?

I was surprised to say the least! It was the first piece I had ever submitted for a prize of this kind and to be honest I was not expecting to win at all. I then felt quite nervous of it being in the public domain and asked a few friends and family members to read it and to pass on their comments. They were very positive about it and reassured me that it could be published: their support and kind words were very gratefully received! After that, I felt quite proud of it. The nicest thing was being able to tell my eldest daughter that I was going to have my writing published in a book as she is very keen to write and to become an author when she grows up: her eyes lit up and she was so excited. I think she told her teacher the next day at school. She’s been writing her own little books ever since: perhaps we can set up our own little family writing group!

6.  Can you tell us a little about your winning piece of writing?

The piece itself is quite a personal story about my eldest daughter who was taken very ill at four weeks old and rushed to hospital (terrifyingly). Although I talked about it a lot both at the time and since it happened, I had never written about it. I found the process simultaneously cathartic and overwhelming. I did find it hard to read again as it brought back the memories of that time and the fear I felt both as a brand new mother to a tiny baby when everybody wants to ‘have a go at holding the baby!’ and then the shock of her illness and being rushed to hospital. The experience did characterize the first few months of motherhood for me: this sense of being so afraid that she would be ill again. It’s interesting now to reflect on that time as I can see how different things are now.

I do think it’s important to portray this side of motherhood which so often doesn’t get talked about: the fear and the intensely fierce protection that we feel towards our babies as new mothers (and forever more!).

7. Any future writing plans?

Well, I’ll be writing a thesis over the next couple of years! I plan to write more of my own creative work too – probably less in terms of memoir and personal writing like this piece was and more short stories and fiction. I have this idea for a book…but it will probably have to wait until I graduate.

8. Any tips for writers?

I do think writing gets better the more you practise. I also read a lot and I think this has helped me with my own writing. I find showing my work to people to be a very difficult process, and so my response is to make myself do it as much as possible! I try to get outside myself comfort zone, even if it is frightfully uncomfortable. Also that you can find inspiration in everything, even the unexpected: I recently wrote about the never-ending ‘soft play centre’ party circuit that parents of 5 year olds are so familiar with.


Jessica’s winning prose piece ‘The First Winter’ was first published in the Summer 2015 issue of JUNO. It also features in The Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize Anthology 2014: THE STORY OF US. And if you feel inspired to take part in this year’s Writing Prize, please read the full guidelines here.

The Story of Us Linky

To celebrate the publication of our latest book, The Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize Anthology 2014: THE STORY OF US we’re having a blog link-up on the theme of ‘The Story of Us’ (in a family context). So if you’d like to share some poetry or prose, or if you’d like to write about one of the pieces in the book that has touched you in some way, we’d love to have you involved.

All we ask is that (technology-allowing) you insert the image/badge below at the bottom of your post and then click on the blue froggy linking button and add your link. And if you could comment on the other bloggers’ posts that would be very welcome. (Also, why not tell us about it on Twitter? We are: @MothersMilkBks.) Many thanks for taking part!

Gratitude, Our Birthday and Free Verse: The Poetry Bookfair

Since I wrote our last blog post a lot has been going on. Those of you who receive our monthly newsletter will be more up-to-date than those who don’t but still, I always seem to be behind with relating all our news and all too often I don’t manage to get my (seemingly important) reflections on publishing onto the page and onto this blog. So in this post I’m going to try to change that. First, I would like to once more express my deepest gratitude to all those kind folk who bought books, cards, prints, made donations and sent me good wishes and offers of help after I sent out our SOS newsletter. It helped us get through a real difficult patch, and although finances are still an issue (they’re always an issue with a small press) fingers-crossed we are staying afloat *just* and looking forward to the future. Hooray!

Second… we managed to get through the summer busyness and unexpectedly found ourselves in September with our annual Writing Prize once more welcoming submissions, a brand new book to launch (the excellent, and fast selling out – The Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize Anthology 2014: The Story of Us) and a visit to Free Verse: The Poetry Book Fair. So I kind of overlooked the fact that Mother’s Milk Books has turned four! We will celebrate with a Facebook giveaway very soon (and perhaps a nice cup of tea for me and Helen) and then it’ll be back to business as usual.

Turning four is actually quite a big thing. In that time I have published eight books and my son has gone from being one to five (he turns five this weekend – how did that happen?!). It is his chubby baby hand in the above photograph on the cover; nowadays his hands are a lot less dinky. Sob! I have been an at-home mother for those four years and only now have I found myself occasionally mentioning to people that I publish stuff as well. What stuff? they ask. And it’s then that I realize that I’m much better at writing about the books I publish than talking about the books I publish. But hey, that’ll come…

Anyway, so we’re four and it’s a big deal really since I do the business side myself (accounts, admin, website etc.) the majority of the publishing stuff (commissioning, editing, typesetting, proofreading, cover design) and all the bookselling too (marketing, social media management, advertising, visiting independent bookshops, packaging books, cycling to the post office to get books sent out…). So I can’t help but feel proud at what I’ve achieved – particularly as it’s mainly been done late at night when my children are asleep. So I’ll silence the voice that’s saying ‘But, but, but…’ and which likes to tell me that I should be doing more. ‘Sssh!’ Anyway, here’s to the past four years and (hopefully) to another four more years (going from being in the red to being in the black would be a bonus too!).

So on to Free Verse. This was the first time that I was there with my Mother’s Milk Books stall. There was a great buzzy atmosphere and it was fantastic to see (and meet) so many people enthusiastic about poetry (though, unfortunately, that enthusiasm didn’t always spill over and translate into actual book sales!).

Teika Bellamy behind the stall. Photo courtesy Sarah James of V. Press

As I don’t think I can expand on what others have written about the event I’ll just list a few things that impressed on me: (forgive me my cheesy overuse of the word ‘glow’ – it’s a nod to yesterday’s National Poetry Day; the theme being ‘light’).

1) Catching sight of the welcome glow of Sarah James’s hair at the far end of Conway Hall when I first arrived and felt a bit nervous.

Sarah James behind our joint stall

2) Chatting to the legend that is crime writer (and poet) John Harvey and introducing myself to him as the publisher of Oy Yew (author Ana Salote met him at Lowdham Book Festival). Later on, rather fantastically, he bought a copy of Oy Yew. Warm glow inside. 🙂

3) The sheer number of publishers, poetry lovers, poets, *potential* buyers and beautiful books on offer. Conway Hall was fairly glowing with poetry.

4) Seeing Angela Topping’s poem ‘Empty Nest’ in the Free Verse Programme. Warm glow inside (again).

5) Listening to Sarah James reading from Hearth and Jacqui Rowe reading from Ransom Notes (V Press). “Great Grandpa’s fireside” from Sarah’s poem, ‘Hearths’, glowed in my mind’s eye.

Jacqui Rowe reading from Ransom Notes (V. Press)

6) Meeting and talking with other publishers, who were fairly glowing with poetry enthusiasm. (As the day wore on, though, the glow did lessen as fatigue took hold.)

7) The legend that is Ross Bradshaw of Five Leaves Press wandering past and saying hello to me as though it was completely natural for us to both be here in this crazy melee of poetry right in the middle of London 130-odd miles away from our Nottinghamshire homes. Happy glow. 🙂 (Five Leaves Bookshop, in the centre of Nottingham, is run by Ross if you didn’t know. We are very thankful to them for stocking our books and cards.)

8) Catching up with ‘lost poet’ Ben Johnson (and founder of Ravenshead Press) whose poem ‘Kids’ featured in Musings on Mothering. Another warm glow. 🙂

9) The colourful glow of the multi-coloured tablecloth on the Bloodaxe poetry stall.

10) The sight of so many kind volunteers helping out during the day and packing up at the end of the day. Warm glow of gratitude for those kind souls.

Photo courtesy Ben Johnson of Ravenshead Press

I would have loved to speak to all the publishers but really, there wasn’t enough time. However, I did get to speak to the following, and as ever, I was impressed by their beautiful poetry books and enthusiasm.

Sarah James of V Press, Nadia Kingsley of Fair Acre Press, Sam Smith of The Journal, Camilla Nelson of Singing Apple Press, Steven Hitchins of Literary Pocket Books, Jan Fortune of Cinnamon Press, Adam Craig of Liquorice Fish Books, Lawrence Schimel of A Midsummer’s Night’s Press, Tony Frazer of Shearsman Books, Martin Parker of Stonewood Press, Helena Nelson of Happenstance, Alwyn Marriage of Oversteps Books, Krishan Coupland of Neon Books, Jamie McGarry of Valley Press, Emma Wright of The Emma Press, Sarah Miles of Paper Swans Press, Jane Commane of Nine Arches Press, Neil Astley of Bloodaxe Books, Ross Bradshaw of Five Leaves Press and Adam and Michael Horovitz of New Departures/Poetry Olympics.

Apologies if I have left anyone out – my memory’s not as good as it used to be. For more on ALL the fabulous publishers who were there at Free Verse, there is a list of them here.

And finally, a huge thank you to Chrissy Williams and Joey Connolly who made the whole crazy-poetic shebang happen (as well as the Arts Council for funding – Long live the Arts Council!).

I will look forward to next year.

June Newsletter and SOS!

This is the first time that I’ve shared my publishing struggles in our newsletter so I decided to post this here in the hope that it’ll reach even more people. Thanks!


Dear Supporter,

As I’ve probably said countless times, running a small press is hard work. There are a small (but goodly) number of us publishers, founders, editors, fools, visionaries — call us what you will — across this small island and each individual brings their own unique identity to the press that they run. So the press, and the books that it publishes, is a reflection of, or perhaps a conduit for, its founder’s voice (political or moral), artistic taste and literary leanings.

All of us founders are so very different… (I’m the breastfeeding mama if you want to label me thus. Or you might know me as the one who’s got a Ph.D. in chemistry. Or the one who is mad keen on fairy tales and whose name means ‘fairy tale’ in Latvian. Or the one who pours far too much double cream into her coffee and wonders why her hips are swelling in her age-old tracksuit bottoms.)

But one commonality between us is that we’re either poorly paid or not paid at all (I fall into the latter category) and that we’re vastly, eminently, amazingly passionate about the books we publish.

Recently, two articles by fellow publishers (whom I greatly respect) – Helena Nelson of Happenstance Press and Sam Jordison of Galley Beggar Press – made a deep impression on me.

In Helena’s Poetry Campus pub chat interview, when asked, “Do you make any money from publishing?” she answered: “The right question would be, ‘How much do you lose?’”

And in Sam’s newsletter/SOS, he wrote:

“We’ve brought quite a few new and glorious novels into the world and really don’t want much more than that. Although we’ve had it….

….Yes, this is a begging letter.”

He then proceeded to explain in great technical detail about the state of UK publishing:

When Sam wrote, “Although we’ve had it.” I admit, I shed a tear or two. I think that he unwittingly prodded an emotional wound in me. You see, I’m no longer as youthful, energetic and optimistic as I used to be; I’m very, very tired as a result of fitting in the work of the press around family life; and the financial debt that we’re in is a constant strain. There are many days when I want to say, “Enough!”.

And yet, and yet… I’m still just as passionate about the books I’ve taken on and am going to publish. These books absolutely deserve to be out there, and I so desperately want readers to find them.

But I can’t produce and market these books without sales and pre-orders. The press simply won’t be able to survive and take on new authors without people buying/pre-ordering our stock, reading our books and recommending them to others.

So to quote Sam, “Yes, this is a begging letter.”

If you’ve only got a couple of quid to spare, you can help us out by buying a card or two. Or a beautiful pamphlet of poetry duets or an almost-sold-out Writing Prize anthology.

If you’ve got a couple quid more you can pre-order/order Oy Yew. This is not a book only for children, it’s a book for all ages, which is absolutely up there with what I consider to be the greats: His Dark Materials and Harry Potter.

Or for the same-ish amount you can buy a gorgeous print to frame and hang on your wall.

Or you can buy a book of fairy tales for an adult audience, or a collection of poetry by one of these two well-loved poets: Angela Topping and Cathy Bryant.

Or you can buy our bestselling and critically-acclaimed anthology Musings on Mothering.

Or you can invest in a unique handbound copy of Musings on Mothering or Letting Go.

Or if you’re feeling particularly generous, you can make a larger donation. (You may need to scroll to the bottom of the page to find the donate button.)

Femininity. Empathy. Normalizing breastfeeding. I want to keep on producing books on this theme. If you’d like to help out, or know a person or two who’d like to help out, please do spread the word.

With many, many thanks for taking the time to read this,
best wishes from Teika (and Helen, who’s been my absolute cheerleader throughout) xxx

And p.s. if you’re in Nottinghamshire this Saturday (27th June) don’t forget that we’re launching Oy Yew at the Lowdham Book Festival, 11.00 – 12.00. Come along and say hello. Or buy me a coffee with plenty of cream in it. 😉
p.p.s. and yes… I know that this newsletter is going out ridiculously late for some of you to catch the last-minute reminder about Lowdham, but I had to see a man about some books today… (Photo courtesy my little son.) [Russell Press are our fab printers by the way.]

Interview with Wendy Orr, winner of the Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize (poetry category)

As we approach the publication of the summer issue of the inspiring natural parenting magazine, JUNO in which the pieces of the Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize winners will appear, I’m delighted to be able to share this interview on the blog. A big thank you to Wendy for taking the time to share her thoughts on motherhood, writing, and what it means to win this prize.

Wendy Orr and daughter (photo courtesy Wendy Orr)

1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I live with my husband and our 8 year old daughter Mathilda, in the beautiful East Neuk coast of Fife. I have a background as an English teacher and consultant in secondary education. Over the years, I have studied: Literature and Language, Deaf Studies, Secondary Teaching, Educational Leadership. The latter, was a Masters that I was doing whilst pregnant and completed when Mathilda was very little. Motherhood made me much more practical about “getting things done” in the spaces. Since moving back to Scotland recently, I spend most of my time taxiing Mathilda about between school, friends’ houses and activity clubs and settling us into a new home.

2. How, when and why did you first start writing?

I have always been drawn to poetry. When I was a child and half-asleep one evening, I saw my dad leave a beautiful, illustrated edition of R. L. Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses at the end of my bed (my sister got fairytales). I felt it was a magical moment and I used to copy out the poems and draw from them. My mum would sing nursery rhymes or The Beatles’ lyrics and we used to say little bedtime prayers as a child too. All of this was a kind of early poetry, for speaking aloud. I just loved the beauty of words behaving in extraordinary ways and my mother’s voice beautified words. Later, I used poetry as a type of self-consolation or working through life, a type of journal although much less systemised. I wrote with a personal purpose but without technical discipline but it became increasingly part of me and I found I wanted it to be clearer, better.

3. How often do you write?

I now write every day but this is a very recent development. I love to do it and I may only find 10 minutes here and there but I find it more and more necessary to my wellbeing and sense of fulfilment. Eavan Boland has commented on the efficiency of writing for 10 minutes – it’s amazing what you can achieve. I also try to write for an hour before everyone is awake – it’s the first thing I do if I can get away with it but I’m not a clockwork type so it’s all quite random and chancy. I like late night writing too but have to rein this in otherwise I’m useless to the world the next day!

4. What made you decide to enter the Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize?

I love blogs, small presses, anything that centres on women’s writing and the experiences many women have of fitting in work and creativity with caring roles and other commitments. I found Mothers Milk Books through the Mslexia website and ordered Angela Topping’s collection, Letting Go, which explored daughterhood and grief, which chimed with a personal experience. MMB seem to highlight the experiences of bonding through breastfeeding and by coincidence, I had been working on a poem which considers this and also draws on the experience of just holding my daughter in everyday life. I saw that the competition deadline was tantalisingly close enough for me not to over-think it – so I closed my eyes and pressed send!

5. How did it feel when you’d heard that you’d won?

I was writing very early in the morning and it was still dark. I just checked my email and saw the word “winner” and “Mother’s Milk” and had this very unusual moment of dreamlike calm. I wasn’t fully awake so I had to check the message several times to make sure I hadn’t invented it. I was delighted.

It has actually become an important milestone for me because it has brought such unexpected encouragement and validation from other writers and a heightened awareness that writing which centres on motherhood and other female experiences, is very much valued. Some recent friends who are very fine, publishing poets let me know that they were already watching out for the competition results and highlighted to me the significance of such a win, for working poets. It has been a remarkably positive experience and feels all the more meaningful because the poem was about my daughter.

6. Can you tell us a little about your winning piece of writing?

The poem started off as a much shorter lullaby-like lyric for Mathilda, which she loved, about the physical experience of holding her and feeling held by her. It developed into memories of breastfeeding (which had its complications for me following neck surgery). It made me feel that we needed each other to make it work – that she was also physically supporting me with her own strength and that I was being gifted a kind of reawakening and realignment through her; a reciprocal nourishment. It made me more acutely aware of Mathilda’s emerging personhood (even as a new baby) and her power seemed to free me, in those close moments. But I couldn’t have articulated any of that until I wrote the poem.

7. Any future writing plans?

I am enjoying writing whatever comes naturally from everyday experiences and observations. I do instinctively seem to write using the imagery of the coastline and there is a kind of darkness to the way I encounter the natural world, which I want to further explore. I also write about family and want to delve a little deeper into the histories of long-gone family members who have become almost mythical in the left-behind detail and lack of detail. Collaborating with another poet or artist would really interest me too in the future. I love the idea.

8. Any tips for writers?

Read. Read as much contemporary poetry as you can get your hands on. It’s very readily accessible online and keeps the eye and ear fresh. I believe you begin to absorb and filter and appreciate what’s meaningful to you by reading a wide range. Libraries such as the Scottish Poetry Library are amazing (you can order online from there). You can also get an immeasurable amount of sustenance from poetry events and readings such as at the STAnza Poetry Festival in St Andrews, to which people travel from all over the world. I found poets there to be open, collaborative and welcoming people – it’s great fun too. Find the nearest one and immerse yourself!

Wendy’s winning poem ‘We Are Sleeping’ will first be published in the summer issue of JUNO (out June 2015) and then in the Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize Anthology 2014: The Story of Us which is to be published this September. 

Launching ‘Hearth’ at the Cheltenham Poetry Festival

Last Sunday, Sarah JamesAngela Topping and I arrived at The Playhouse in Cheltenham to launch their pamphlet of poetry duets, Hearth. Although we had a small audience (the clash with Wenlock Poetry Festival no doubt decreasing numbers) they were a great audience. They listened to Sarah and Angela’s poetry reading with appreciation, and then afterwards the Q&A discussion about creative collaboration, motherhood and how to find time to write amidst busy family life was lively; in fact, we nearly ran over our allotted time slot!

As the publisher of Hearth (and as a reader for one of the parts of their collaborative poem, ‘Crow Lines’) I got one of the best seats in the house – right beside the poets. For me, it was brilliant to actually hear these poems being read by their creators. As the publisher, editor and typesetter I knew these poems well on the page, but when they were read they somehow flew and further life was breathed into them. And when I heard two of my favourite poems from the pamphlet, ‘The Washing Line’ by Sarah James and ‘Hooam’ by Angela Topping being read, I felt a tingle of magic running up and down my spine.

The Washing Line

The sister I never met hangs out my sheets,
pairs socks, dries my husband’s shirts
— sails smoothed towards the sun.

Sleeves brush against sleeves;
their unfleshed white flutters free.
Dropped pegs scatter on the grass.

I clip three together: a plastic family.
That’s Mum, Dad and me;
pinched tight without her.

She has polished the kitchen surface.
My unwashed potatoes
are peeled moons in her hands.

Her cheese soufflé rises from liquid velvet.
Always ready, the ghost of her absence
blurs my face from our photos.

Her dead baby lungs filled with water,
my chest aches where they buried her smile;
its sickle scrapes my ribs.




Childlike, I danced in a dream;
Blessings emblazoned that day;
Everything glowed with a gleam;
Yet we were looking away!
                      Thomas Hardy

Me mam’s clatterin in ower kitchen
me dad’s at work. Am on me tod
playin in living room. Fire’s in.
Ah sit on floower, spread farms
on carpit, cows n pigs n sheds
all mine t’ rule ovver an all.

Now ah’m grown, owen haaus to rule ovver
me dad’s gone, so’s me mam.
Bring em back, yem days, gimme back
yon carpits, gawdy nick-knacks,
an brassoed stuff, fireplace an all.

Gimme dem days back, ‘ow it was
an me not seein it were passin.



After our event I was busy with our bookstall – all those in the audience came to buy a copy or two of Hearth, which was really lovely. Then, the poets for the next reading came in to set our their books and to mingle and chat. There was a lovely, friendly atmosphere – with many of the poets being firm friends and I must admit that I felt quite at home!

Sarah, Angela and myself then attended the next event – a reading by poets Adam Horovitz and David Morley. This was pretty packed, and I sensed a crackle of excitement in the air. Adam and David, very different poets, were absolutely riveting. And just as with Angela and Sarah’s reading, their poems seem to fly off the page and swirl around the room, coming to rest in the audience members’ hearts and minds.

I am absolutely convinced that anyone with an interest in poetry would love to come to an event like this. These poets showed me that poetry is very much alive and well, and absolutely itching to be discovered and shared.

After the event and packing up the bookstall, Angela, Sarah and I (as well as Angela’s lovely, supportive husband) enjoyed a pizza and talked more about poetry. All in all, it was a great day, and I am already looking forward to the next time I get to go out on a poetry ‘junket’!

We currently have a limited number of copies of Hearth (18 at the moment) that have been signed by Sarah and Angela in our online store. Do snap them up before they all go!

p.s. I’ve already got an eye out for another brilliant pair of poets to come together for another pamphlet of poetry duets. Please do check out the submissions if you’re interested. And if you’d like to suggest any pairings, please do leave a comment on this blog post. Thank you!