Sunflowers and Old Boots

I recently stumbled upon a website which had the letters written by Vincent Van Gogh to his brother, family and friends. Completely absorbed I was lost to research for hours on end, compelled to learn more of this painters fascinating life story. Here is the resulting “found” poem which uses lines written by Van Gogh himself to describe his experiences, collated in a way which hopefully does justice to his tale. All credit given to Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten and Nienke Bakker who edited and published his letters on line.

Sunflowers and Old Boots


This horror of life

I disgust myself as I look upon faces terrified by

my attacks of crisis.


Unexpected voices sound in my head

Things appear to change before my eyes

frightening me beyond measure.


Leaving a cracked jug of acute melancholy

a repulsion for life, not wanting to move

not wanting to wake again.


But extreme sluggishness is a crime!

I must climb back up from this dejected state.

I am very much behind. I have lost too much time.


I have dazzling ideas in my head, more than I could ever keep up with.

If only I’d been able to work without illness

How many things I could have done, what the land would tell me!


Those who don’t understand, that art preoccupies

accuse me of working too fast

but I should work as hard as a shoemaker, assiduously to make progress.



Money is the enemy before the troops

One cannot deny or

forget it


My dear brother I have bought a suit for 35 francs

But it will last the year

Yet I have need of shoes and a few pairs of drawers


I must paint to recover the money to produce

Perhaps, one day,

I’ll be able to repay all that I have spent.


If I had private means perhaps

My mind would be freer

To do art for art’s sake.


I could sell my bed for the price of a train ticket

That I may see you again

but no, I am condemned to inconveniences.


I must stay locked up in the asylum

So not to inflict suffering on those I love.

Here I don’t frighten anyone.


The sufferings of anguish aren’t funny when caught in a crisis

But comfort can be found amongst inmates

Who show kindness to one another – it isn’t so sad.

One man hasn’t stopped talking or shouting for a fortnight

Another honourable madman always wears a hat,

spectacles and carries a cane.


Some howl, rave, are manic and angry, some filthy, some dangerous.

The food smells musty and is hard to digest

But there is gentleness, we look after each other.


Frequent and decisive attacks mean I’m forbidden to paint,

Apprehensive of a relapse, I suffer a thwarted artistic will.

It’s a shipwreck of a journey.


In Spring, out in the park,  I have the clarity for work

But the winter is dangerous

I am too damaged by grief.


I fear for what reason remains

And capacity for work may be lost.


I long to be freed from surroundings and circumstances

I don’t understand and be once more

Bathed in a benevolent sunshine.


A warm handshake as I say goodbye,



*Lines taken from edited by Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten and Nienke Bakker

Van Goghs boots

Feedback and re-writes

After the initial interest from the publishers, I was asked to go into the offices to chat about my book. With a beating heart, I replied to their emails, always unsure of how businesslike to sign off my mails; “Kind Regards” too official? “Sincerely” too stuffy? “Love” out of the question. I chose one and stuck to it. We arranged a date and after much deliberation on what to wear for a first meeting with a publisher, I set off.


I arrived at a very traditional industrial mill. It seemed every time I joined any writing group or indeed visited a publisher, it was always in a building with great architectural heritage. I loved it. Walking down a long dark corridor into the depths of the mill, it was evident daylight didn’t feature here. There wouldn’t be any window seats like the modern office buildings of today.

A workman passed by in overalls and looked at me quizzically, possibly due to the heels clomping on the York stone slabs. I asked him directions and he waved his hand at a small white door to the left. As I approached, I could see James and Anthony inside, and they beckoned me in. The stark fluorescent lights were harsh on the eyes in contrast to the dark corridor outside. I was motioned to a sofa and the meeting began.  


James, the Managing Director, told me how he had read the manuscript and his first reaction was “Wow”. I sat there dumbfounded and almost deaf to anything else he said for the next minute. “Wow”? Really? My work deserves a “Wow”? I couldn’t believe my ears. More positive feedback was given as Anthony, the Marketing Manager backed James’ views. I was delighted.

James then moved onto what was to happen next. He explained that the story I had written spanned two reading categories; 3-5 year olds and 5-8 year olds. Apparently, it is important to distinguish which bracket your book is aimed at, to help the bookshops to know where to position it on shelf and of course how online booksellers should list it. I was given the task of re-writing the story to fit either category. I had to either remove the more difficult words, and simplify the terms for the 3-5 year olds, or lengthen the story to suit the 5-8 year old category.


Happily, they said they would print my book whichever group I decide to target, so I left feeling on top of the world. I still had the word “wow” ringing in my ears.

TV personality Sarah Heaney Reads to kids in Edinbugh

As soon as I got home I took out the manuscript and started work. I started by simplifying the piece and aiming at the 3-5 year olds. My thought process being quite simply, I had set out to write bedtime stories which my 4-year-old would enjoy, so it seemed appropriate to start there.


My twelve-year-old daughter came home from school as I was in the midst of the re-write and asked what I was doing. When I explained, she very quickly responded with the fact that I couldn’t possibly write it for 5-8 year olds. When I asked why she was so adamant, she informed me my story wasn’t cool enough for an 8-year-old. She wrinkled her nose as she said it, for added effect!

“Which 8 year old is going to pick up a book with a pear on the front?” She had a point.


With added determination, I finished the re-write and submitted it back to the Publisher.