2016 in review

An annual update to my blog doesn’t seem all that impressive, but life does often get in the way of writing about it. 2016, tumultuous as it has been on the world stage, has been good to me both personally and professionally, and I can only be very grateful for that.

Highlights have included:

Organising the Fenland Poet Laureate Awards for the last time, in a big event to celebrate our fifth year! After a nail-biting contest, Mary Livingstone Totman was crowned the Fenland Poet Laureate for 2016. However, though I have bowed out from the team, the FPL Awards are still very much running this year, and there’s still time to get your entry in for 2017 – details on the splendid new website.

Photo: Harry Rutter

Photo: Harry Rutter

R to L: Poppy Kleiser, me, Mary Livingstone Totman, Jonathan Totman, Leanne Moden Photo: Harry Rutter

R to L: Poppy Kleiser, me, Mary Livingstone Totman, Jonathan Totman, Leanne Moden
Photo: Harry Rutter

I have hugely enjoyed studying for my PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Essex, writing about the North Sea islands of Heligoland – although my day to day life seems to involved any activity except writing the actual thesis…

Over the summer I was given a hugely exciting commission, to write a play for Peterborough Green Festival, produced by Eastern Angles theatre company. It’s been one of my dreams to write for them, even though I’d not written a script since the nativity play I wrote for the church youth group in 1993… In the Wake of the Flood, a response to a potential future flooded landscape brought about by climate change, was performed in front of Peterborough Cathedral in August, and I was then asked to develop it for a performance of new writing, Engine Room, at the beginning of October. It was a fantastic experience all round.

On set with the cast of my play, Darren O'Sullivan ('Hereward') and Suzanne Tuck ('Etheldreda')

On set with the cast of my play, Darren O’Sullivan (‘Hereward’) and Suzanne Tuck (‘Etheldreda’)

In rehearsal.

In rehearsal.

 

In the autumn I helped to launch the University of Essex anthology of Creative Writing, Creel 2, as part of the editorial team. And what a fine anthology it is, too…

Cover image: James Dodds. Design: John Wallett

Cover image: James Dodds. Design: John Wallett


In November I got to read at Poetry in Aldeburgh, at the launch of the 3rd issue of The Fenland Reed, at the invitation of editors Jonathan and Mary Totman. This was such a super occasion, in such a fantastic venue – and so many poets in one place! A real weekend to remember.

With some famous names...

With some famous names…

I’ve been doing a lot of teaching and workshop leading this year, too, including two series of creative writing workshops at March library, and my first term of teaching English Literature to undergraduates. I am so far out of my comfort zone I am thinking of bringing my own supply of oxygen, but it has been enjoyable and rewarding and surprisingly full of comic moments.

I am so very fortunate to be doing what I love, surrounded by so many dedicated and supportive people. Here’s to creativity and the gifts that literature can give us in an uncertain world. Here’s to 2017.

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2015 in review

So, what have I been up to this year?  It has been an eventful time for me as a writer, and doing an annual round-up is a good excuse to look back on it all…

One of the highlights was my trip to Aberystwyth to the New Welsh Writing awards in February, where I was placed second by judges Mark Cocker and Gwen Davies for my long non-fiction piece, Heligoland: An Ecology of Exile.  I was delighted and proud, and my prize of a week’s residential course at the wonderful Writers’ Centre at Tŷ Newydd led to more excitements, of which more later…

L to R: Mark Cocker and shortlisters, me, Eluned Gramich, Philip Jones (copyright New Welsh Review, reproduced with permission)

L to R: Mark Cocker and shortlisters, me, Eluned Gramich, Philip Jones (copyright New Welsh Review, reproduced with permission)

After that, I launched into a very different experience as a consultant poet for Rachel Burn Dance for their performance, Threshold, based on Walt Whitman’s classic poem Leaves of Grass.  It was the first time I had worked with a dance company and I was honoured to be part of the experience.

"Threshold" in rehearsal

“Threshold” in rehearsal

March saw the inaugural publication from Essex-based Dunlin Press, Est: Collected Reports from East Anglia, to which I had contributed.  This beautiful anthology has garnered plenty of critical praise, including a special mention from Libby Purves for my essay, “Digging”, which she describes as, “a wonderful essay on Sutton Hoo and its ghosts”.  You can buy your own copy via the website here.

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Another important event in March was the appointment of the new Fenland Poet Laureate, Jonathan Totman, who has proved such a fantastic choice in the months that followed!  I am very proud that these awards, which I help to run, and which aims to encourage poets and poetry in the fenland area, is now in its fifth year!  If you live, work or study in fenland, do consider entering – details are on the ADeC website here.

L-R: Poppy Kleiser, Leanne Moden, Jonathan Totman, me (photo credit: Lizzy Doe)

L-R: Poppy Kleiser, Leanne Moden, Jonathan Totman, me (photo credit: Lizzy Doe)

My poetry reading at the Stained Glass Museum in Ely to celebrate an exhibition on the theme of Dylan Thomas’ work, and the launch of former Fenland Poet Laureate Poppy Kleiser’s splendid anthology, Poems for Peace, were other spring highlights, as well as taking part in Poetry to Go at Cambridge Literary Festival – enormous fun writing bespoke poems for the punters.

I am operating a naked flame, fortunately without tragic results. (Photo: Ida Huntic)

I am operating a naked flame, fortunately without tragic results. (Photo: Ida Huntic)

Looking back, I see I didn’t include this on my blog at the time, but my long hours and hair-whitening levels of stress, applying for funding to start a PhD, came to a nail-biting finish in May, when I was awarded a Silberrad scholarship by the University of Essex to enable me to study for a Creative Writing PhD, expanding on my MA work on the North Sea islands of Heligoland.  I expect my blog will include more about this in due course…

Also in May, I enjoyed taking part in one of the nature writing workshops run by Lois Williams and one of my fellow MA Wild Writing graduates, Melinda Appleby, at the BTO headquarters in Thetford – an inspiring day at an inspiring location.  The series of workshops, under the Breaking New Ground landscape partnership, culminated in a gorgeously produced pamphlet of poems, including my poem, “Homing”, and an exhibition which takes place in January in Bury St Edmunds – maybe take a look if you’re in the area?

Throughout 2015, the monthly open mic spoken word night Fen Speak, which I help to run, said a tearful goodbye to its founder Leanne Moden, who is now being a whirlwind of poetic activity in Nottingham…  Fen Speak continues, however, hosted by the scintillating charisma of Jonathan Totman and Poppy Kleiser, so do join us…

I give an emotional speech of farewell to Leanne Moden at Fen Speak (photo: Fay Roberts)

I give an emotional speech of farewell to Leanne Moden at Fen Speak (photo: Fay Roberts)

In September I ran a series of creative writing workshops in local libraries in Littleport and March.  It was a tremendous experience and I hope to be doing some more in 2016.  A particular memorable moment was getting the participants to write an Anglo Saxon riddle and then guess each other’s answers!  Fantastic fun.

Creative writing workshop in Littleport Library (photo: Louise Aldridge)

Creative writing workshop in Littleport Library (photo: Louise Aldridge)

In September I started my PhD, which I am enjoying a great deal – though unfortunately it’s left me rather too busy to keep up my blog.  I will try to do better in 2016…

My week’s residential course at Tŷ Newydd in October was a great experience – it is such a beautiful, peaceful location on the Welsh coast, I was just blown away.  Great walks and fantastic food, and two amazing tutors, Pascale Petit and Niall Campbell, who led some thought-provoking workshops on the theme of “The Trance of Place”.  It was the first time I had been on a residential writing course, and I did wonder how I would manage, living with a dozen other poets for a week, and whether I would end up wanting to run and hide, but everyone was very friendly…  I wrote a poem there, “Fen, Again,” which I later entered in the Resurgence Ecopoetry competition, and made the shortlist out of thousands of entries.  The judges were former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, Alice Oswald and Jo Shapcott, and I am just so pleased that they like my work.  The winning and shortlisted poems can be found here.  I also got to go to a glittering awards ceremony in London and meet Joanna Lumley, one of the founders of the award, thus making my fairly humdrum life as a poet look ludicrously glamorous…

With fellow shortlister Nicola Healey and Joanna Lumley (photo: Alicia Healey)

With fellow shortlister Nicola Healey and Joanna Lumley (photo: Alicia Healey)

So many memorable times, but perhaps the most moving was singing at the first performance of “A Fenland Christmas,” my poem which was set to music by talented local composer John Lawson Baker, who died earlier this year and is much missed.  Although I am sorry it was never performed during his lifetime, it had a very creditable performance by the St Peter’s Singers at the Advent Carol Service this year at St Peter’s Church in Ely.

I think that’s quite enough excitement for one year…  I am very lucky to be able to do what I love and work with such incredible people.  Thank you for reading this blog and for the kind comments you have sent or posted.  I wish you all a creative 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Writing Migration in Thetford

I spent a lovely day yesterday with writers Melinda Appleby and Lois Williams in the beautiful surroundings of the the old Nunnery in Thetford, now the headquarters of the British Trust for Ornithology.  Melinda is one of my fellow Wild Writers from my MA course at the University of Essex, and she and her colleague put on a thought-provoking, attractive and well-organised day’s creative writing workshop on the theme of “Bringing the Spring”.

Looking at poets from John Clare to Ruth Padel, we explored different ways of writing about spring migration – as celebration, elegy, and as analogies with human situations.  Paul Stancliffe from the BTO joined us for a while to give a short talk about migration and the research done by the BTO which is helping us understand for the first time some of the hidden mysteries of migrant birds.  Sadly, so many of the birds which used to represent the coming of spring in years gone by are now under threat by loss of habitat and climate change: including swifts, turtle doves and cuckoos.

The writing exercises provided throughout the day were well thought out and I personally found them all very productive – I managed one draft poem and ideas to develop for two more, sufficiently good that I want to progress with them now I am back home again.  The indoor work was relieved by a couple of trips out into the grounds and down by the river, the Little Ouse, despite the almost relentless rain.  Once, back in 2011, I was lucky enough to see an otter parent and cub on this spot, while on a bird ID course run by the BTO (me, not the otters) – I wasn’t expecting that to be repeated, and it wasn’t…  However, keen naturalist Ali showed me the mayflies sheltering under the nettle leaves – somewhere I would never have thought to look for wildlife.

All in all, a splendid day out.  There are still places left on Melinda and Lois’ forthcoming writing workshops, held at different venues in Breckland, and I would very much recommend them.  As part of the Breaking New Ground project, these subsidised courses are at very low prices – an absolute bargain.

Inspired by nature (photo by Peter Barham)

Inspired by nature (photo by Peter Barham)

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Poet-in-residence – is this for you?

“Just write and ask” – Abegail Morley passes on advice about residencies.

The Poetry Shed

I’m currently Poet-in-Residence for the National Trust at Scotney Castle. I decided to do this after my last collection as a way of exploring something new and also to shift the direction of my writing. I’ve spent a lot of time there, either on my own or with friends – it’s a good way of getting extra ideas, especially from friends who ask a lot of (difficult) questions. I’ve chatted to volunteers, employees and pounced on visitors. My work focuses on the ruins, the moat in particular. I recently read about Jacques Benveniste and his theory about water (which later became known as the “memory of water”).

It’s known as the “memory of water”.
When you add a substance to water and then dilute
the water to the point where there are no more
molecules of the added substance left in the
water, you can still measure effects of the…

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Poems for Peace launch and Poetry to Go

Friday 10th April saw the long-awaited launch of Poems for Peace, an anthology of poems by writers in the East Anglian area (and beyond), “inspired by the futility of war throughout the ages” [from the jacket], edited by the 2014 Fenland Poet Laureate, Poppy Kleiser.  The launch, held at the Wisbech and Fenland Museum, was lively with poets, press and guests crowding the galleries, and the presence of Benjamin Zephaniah, who wrote the foreword to the book, was an added excitement!

Refreshments were followed by readings by the poets, of which I was very pleased to be one, with my poem, “Heligoland,” inspired by those islands’ dramatic history, which I have been studying over the past year for my MA dissertation in Wild Writing.

The collection itself includes an impressive variety of styles and subject matter – it is very easy to make an anthology of war poetry repetitive and unrelenting, but these poems provide a thought-provoking exploration of many different aspects of war and resistance, from all over the globe.

It was a hugely enjoyable evening and a fitting culmination of Poppy’s many achievements during her year of office.  To get your hands on a copy of Poems for Peace, please e-mail: poetlaureatepoemsforpeace@gmail.com

 

Photo: J.S. Watts

Photo: J.S. Watts

Photo: J.S. Watts

Photo: J.S. Watts

 

Our usual Fen Speak open mic night at Ely’s Babylon Gallery was its usual creative mix from the sublime to the silly.  Hosting it single-handedly in the absence of Leanne Moden, I was glad to find the Fen Speak audience was as friendly and responsive as always.  Why not come and join us next time?

Last weekend saw me at Cambridge Literary Festival, with Fay Roberts’ Allographic Poetry To Go team, cooking up poetry to order for an increasingly intrigued clientele.  With a splendid array of different presentation options and a varied menu of poetic forms, the event was fast, furious and fun.  It was lovely to see the reactions of the customers to their poems –  apparently, I made one lady cry, “but in a good way”.

With a sunny location under a bunting-bedecked marquee in the Cambridge Union garden, spring was in the air for both the poetry and the poets…

Many congratulations to Fay for all her hard work and unflappability in bringing this off. Watch out for more Poetry to Go near you…

I am operating a naked flame, fortunately without tragic results.  (Photo: Ida Huntic)

I am operating a naked flame, fortunately without tragic results. (Photo: Ida Huntic)

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Ely Writers’ Day, Dylan Thomas at the Stained Glass Museum, and the Fenland Poet Laureate Awards

In last week’s epic blog post, I managed to miss a couple of things out, so I’ll account for them here:

On Saturday 21st March, I attended the Writers’ Day at Ely Library, organized by Rosemary Westwell.  I had been to a previous event in Birmingham library last autumn, which included a variety of interesting speakers, talking about various aspects of writing, including self-publishing, marketing and co-authoring.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend the full day this time, but I did manage the afternoon, at which I spoke to a very engaged and enthusiastic audience about Fen Speak and the Fenland Poet Laureate Awards, and read from my collection Fur, Feather and Fen.

“Does anyone have any questions?”

“Yes, can we have another poem please?”

The following Tuesday, I performed a reading in a rather more unusual environment, the beautiful Stained Glass Museum in Ely Cathedral, at the kind invitation of curator Jasmine Allen.  Tucked into one of the towers, this is a hidden treasure house of glass art throughout the ages.  Currently it is hosting an Exhibition, “Harmony”, a series of glass panels which were shortlisted in a competition in 2014 to celebrate the centenary of Dylan Thomas’ birth.  As the museum’s guests nursed their glasses of wine at a private view and perused the artwork, I attempted to draw together the art and Thomas’ poetry by reading some of his poems, as well as a few of my own.  I was rather fearful of putting myself in the way of invidious comparisons with one of the great poets of the twentieth century, but I received some very positive feedback on the way my choice of poems had helped bring out the themes of the exhibition, and of Thomas’ own work.

I do very much enjoy these collaborations between different art forms and artists, and hope there will be more opportunities in the future.  Do go and look at the exhibition if you are in Ely – it is free to view.

And then, on Friday 27th March, the Fenland Poet Laureate Awards!  Congratulations to our new Fenland Poet Laureate, Jonathan Totman, and Young Fenland Poet Laureate, Harriet Munson!  It was a hugely fun night at the Wisbech and Fenland Museum, hosted by the unflappable Leanne Moden and with poems from judges Poppy Kleiser and Pete “Cardinal” Cox, as well as the shortlisters themselves. I’m very looking forward to working with Jonathan, an extremely talented poet, during his forthcoming year in post.  A detailed report on this glittering event can be found on the Atelier East website, and Jonathan’s own blog can be found here – take a look!

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A quatrain of Fenland Poets Laureate: (L to R) Poppy Kleiser, Leanne Moden, Jonathan Totman and me (photo by Lizzy Doe)

 

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Three glorious months…

It’s been a busy start to the year, so I’ll have to bring you up to speed very briefly!

So far I’ve performed at the friendly folk afternoon, Slack Space in Colchester, and featured at Silence Found a Tongue at Waterloo, following the Lunar Poetry podcast that David Turner came to record, interviewing myself and my poetic partner in crime, Leanne Moden, as well as the current (for one day only now!) Fenland Poet Laureate, Poppy Kleiser.  The interview, which raised some quite challenging questions about what we do for fenland poetry, is available here.

So far, however, this year’s highlight has been the New Welsh Writing Awards in Aberystwyth last month.  I had been shortlisted, along with Eluned Gramich and Philip Jones, for the award, for long form nature writing.  The event, organised by New Welsh Review, was hugely enjoyable.  We got to meet and chat to judges Gwen Davies (editor of NWR) and the renowned nature writer and activist Mark Cocker.  The other finalists were charming and modest as well as being incredibly talented – you can see a beautiful film showcasing all our pieces on the website here.  I won second prize, which I am extremely pleased by, and I look forward to reading Eluned’s first prize-winning piece when it is published later this year.

As part of my prize, as well as a year’s subscription to New Welsh Review, I have a week’s residential writing course at Ty Newydd, so I have that to look forward to!

L to R: Mark Cocker and shortlisters, me, Eluned Gramich, Philip Jones

L to R: Mark Cocker and shortlisters, me, Eluned Gramich, Philip Jones (photo: Tomos Nolan photography, with permission NWR)

Back from Aber, it was straight onto a really exciting project, working with acclaimed choreographer Rachel Burn as a kind of consultant poet for her piece “Threshold”, based on Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.  I had the privilege of attending rehearsal and seeing how the dance was developed and adapted.  The piece formed part of a double bill with Ieva Kuniskis’ “Women’s Tales”, at Rich Mix in London, which was a fantastic experience.  As well as the dance performances themselves, artist Luka Vardiashvili displayed artwork he had drawn, inspired by Kuniskis’ dancers in rehearsal, and in the interval invited the audience to come and join in drawing their own impressions.  Afterwards I did a reading from “Leaves of Grass”, to add another dimension to the dance performance.

"Threshold" in rehearsal

“Threshold” in rehearsal

The white dress!

The white dress!

A film of “Threshold” can be found here (in an earlier version of the live performance). Well worth a watch!

Last Friday found me back in Wivenhoe, Essex, for the launch of new indie publisher Dunlin Press’ anthology of East Anglian landscape writing, Est.  Wivenhoe Books was packed to the rafters for this event, and no wonder – the book is full of luminously good writing, and I’m very proud to count my own essay about Sutton Hoo, funeral rites and memory, “Digging”, among the contributions.

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I would encourage anyone interested in East Anglia, nature writing or both to get themselves a copy.  Would also make a splendid gift: buy here!

There’s more I could talk about, but time is running out on me, and tonight is the Fenland Poet Laureate awards in Wisbech, fenland’s hottest poetry ticket (probably).  Who will be bearing the fenland poetry banner in 2015?  Watch this space…

 

 

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