What a Twit

Part Two…

I was Twitterer in Residence at the Durham Book Fest. I loved it. It took me back to being a radio journalist. Licence to ask questions, make random observations and report them immediately. Although most of the festival’s audiences were Facebookers not Twits,  I could see potential for a rolling reportage of an event- and for the medium to be a good way of linking to other content. I carried on when I was gigging at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival the following week, again with something of an aim around drawing people into an event they may not think they could attend and the festival director said they’d love to have me do it officially one year. I kept questions in mind as I did it about what it could achieve (particularly in terms of literature and reader development) or how it could work. I think there’s lots more experimenting to be done and I’ve proposed to a couple of festivals that they use Twitter teams of youngsters as reporters. Watch this space…

At the National Association of Writers in Education conference I ended up talking about a school project I did which involved a professional development partnership between me and a teacher (I was going to talk about instances in which writers become invisible but ironically, because I was also delivering a NWN paper on the project in Anna’s absence, it then made sense to make the project present by talking about my role within it). There were lots of questions about the process by which me being present as a writer and her being present as a teacher (which had to become- it didn’t just happen, we both had to be rescued from our own tendencies to invisibility- her as a newly qualified teacher and me as an ever holographic writer) led to a real exploration of the writing process by our partner writers, the children. I also made some great connections here with lovely folks interested in various aspects of things I do as a writer. And heard again and again that I should be published nationally. Which seems a natural consequence of being on the radio but I, and probably (but I haven’t approached them) national publishers, are more ambivalent.

I’ve also been hovering around wanting to speak and write some of the thoughts I’ve had during this year. The massive applause reaction of the Chief Nursing Officers when I said that since they wanted to listen to patients and staff more, maybe writers in residence would be a way forward since they have time to listen, made me reflect even more on useful roles writers could play in society. It was just after a chat with Antonia Byatt the Arts Council’s Literature Strategy officer where she pointed out that if writers were to have a manifesto it should also focus on what they can give as well as what they want.

I bubbled all sorts of ideas for writers telling the world what they can give, and then got sidetracked into how Northern voices still seem to be marginalised and wandered down a side road of Northern writers especially saving the world. My grandiosity and insignificance cancelled each other out and I returned once again to the ideas of writers writing. And thought about writing some essays. I had a great chat with the poet Gillian Allnut who is listening intently in her current project with the Medical Foundation for Victims of Torture. She pointed out that saying that writers must love is potentially naff, but showing that they can listen is not.

I think in a Tory government, arts funding knackered, increasingly London-centric UK, we’re all going to need more help with listening and being listened to. But grandiosity and insignificance are still repelling each other and those solutions for a style of leadership that flows more like water than strikes like lightning look better all the time.

Meanwhile, the young writers group flows on and we’re all preparing pieces on the theme of music and song for a publication which will be the last thing I undertake before I finish the placement. Synchronously, I’m off for a Big Brother style week in a house in Northumberland with some folk musicians and poets to collaborate on new work about Hadrian’s Wall at the end of January, and also delivering some workshops on creative collaborations at a school conference in that week.

I think, at the end of this Leadership placement, it will be the value of creative collaborations and true partnerships that would be something I could lead on in the future…

Wintery

At some point I did more doing than blogging and stopped.

But of course blogging is doing. And a layer or so of insights might be buried under the snow and slush of weather.

In microcosm the last couple of days may say something about the Cultural Leadership process and where it’s taken me. First off, a meeting with the MD of the newly forming Community Interest Company of which I will be Creative Director. Radikal Words will undertake spoken word projects in education, community and public sector settings. I started off this CLP becoming interested in social enterprise, and began to think my own company would be the way forward. I wanted it to help fulfil some of my aims for spoken word, and beliefs about how spoken word artists can be developed. I’m on the board of the national performance poetry organisation Apples and Snakes and had been hearing about a “cold spot” in spoken word provision in the North East. I knew this was the case, but had lots of ideas about how to plug the gap, mentor more artist/facilitators and be able to spread some of the work that I get offered. Brilliantly, many things came together at once, and, with a long time performance poet colleague, we’re being able to help a national spoken word project pilot in the region.

I have lots of ideas now about mentoring, volunteers, professionalisation, facilitating projects and ownership of projects that have come about through my pondering about leadership, through my connection with New Writing North and the experiences I’ve had this year with the young people’s writing group and other projects. At the moment, one of the things that may not be built into this spoken word project at proposal stage is artist development (or artist as facilitator development) to the degree that my research in the last year has indicated that it is important. But part of this process means I’m going to be strongly advocating for it.

I also had a meeting with Claire and Anna from NWN about the draft script of a show I’ll be touring later this year. They’ve encouraged and solicited this, and it’ s feeling like it could be a real step forward for me as an artist. But it’s quite odd suddenly having people also becoming invested in the words that come from inside my head. It’s as if they’re becoming real, long before the stage they would usually become real at, when I speak them in front of an audience. They’d paid for me to go away for a week in a cottage on Lindisfarne to write at the end of December, which was such a wonderful luxury. Getting up each morning thinking about what to write, rather than “Which emails shall I reply to?”, “Which project shall I move forward with”, “Which workshop will I be delivering next?”, “Why is Borders closing, David Tennant leaving, Wogan off air, our box set of Boston Legal all watched and a really good Arts Council Literature Officer not being re employed?”. The show, Fox News, will look at my life in relation to news events that were going on. I skewed the first draft more towards news, but Claire and Anna preferred the life story bits and think it could work as a comedy/poetry show. Which is good, but as ever, scary. Doing poems on Saturday Live has taken me away from the personal stuff I’d been writing in the last few years and now I’ll be returning there. Older, maybe not wiser.

Today I also had a meeting about a fantastic festival which funding being well, will take place in the autumn. All CLP-d up, I owned and proposed ideas which-rather than being good ideas coming from and going into the ether, were clear projects I (or Radikal Words) could take on and deliver. Again, Words coming from me but being shared and then realised.

Thoughts continue about different models of leadership. Not top down,, authoritative. Tending to be collaborative, fluid, about influence rather than intervention.

But less abstractly, I took some of those thoughts to;

A Chief Nursing Officers conference where I was poet in residence. These, mostly women, seemed to be balancing the same high wire between leadership and their experience as practitioners as me. How to be a nurse and a leader some of them mused? It’s a different model . One informs the other and neither should be sacrificed in decision making. There was much talk of making all nurses leaders- critical, creative thinkers, taking the initiative on decisions over patient care.  In other news there, I said the word “love” to describe some of what they did since it seemed to be taboo, and reflected that seems to be the case in writing projects too.

Part Two to follow…

A little more time

A lovely, relaxing ten days in France leaves me wanting more time and space to write.

Paris and the legendary Shakespeare and Co bookshop whose owner published James Joyce and which has remained a centre of literary activity since, reminded me I want to write a brilliant novel one day.

Exciting things await on my return here- like a Saturday Live programme and poem to write with Suggs from Madness as the studio guest. Plans afoot for me to be the resident Twitterati at the Durham Book Fest and various other things related to speed of thought, response and writing.

But the novel will be slow I think. Even though I usually write quickly. And it will be quiet, unlike the chatter of the web and people.

I may artfully try use this placement to gain time again now. Days for thinking and writing. Quiet, white spaces like the white room that Maud LaMotte fantasises about in my favourite novel, Possession.

The young writers group and nexus of volunteers continues to feel like a positive, growing collaboration of people. At the moment, the best advice I could give all of them as writers is-give yourself the space and time to write. Apparently six writers are currently sleeping among the books at Shakespeare and Co (I saw the little red, velvet chaise longues). They’re giving themselves time, space and inspiration, if not neccessarily comfort. And working for it by serving in the bookshop a few hours a day. As ever, tis balance we must seek as writers. Though a room of one’s own doesn’t go amiss either.

Corporate storytelling

The writers groups for young people I’m running this summer are coming together brilliantly. 14 great volunteers, 15 lovely, motivated young writers and a sense that this initiative is wanted, needed and kind of good and beautiful at the same time. As a CLP outcome this one is feeling very right.

However there are so many more nebulous questions and wonderings still opening up. Meeting with the other artist/practitioner people Nina Edge and Helen Carnac was wonderful for this. We’re all based in busy, fast moving cultural organisations, whose busy fast movingness sometimes means that more contemplative, spiralling, slow ways of being get lost.  The very different three of us seemed to gain strength in talking about our experiences of trying to define ourselves in relation to our hosts, and a cultural landscape, and in thinking about formulating a vision together-based in our actual practice.  Making work about leadership together. We reflected on how often arts conferences don’t have many artists at them-and if they do they tend not to be paid. We’re pondering whether artists could be more visible-could we do some speaking?

Watching “Imagine” on BBC1 the other night with a spread of mainly male, posh suited blokes talking about “the arts-they’re always positive!”, I had an even greater sense that there may be some viewpoints that are under represented…

Before this placement though I wouldn’t have thought so much of attempting to be a representative voice.  Now, I’m wondering how. How do people get the ear of DCMS or the Culture Secretary etc? Could they do with hearing from more artists directly?  I’ve been reading about the New Deal of the Mind folk (lobbyists? campaigners?) and they seem to have impressively pulled together a report, got some ears and voices. I wonder what gave them the confidence and motivation? Perhaps that’s one of the CLP questions I could ask.

So much of this leadership stuff (when it’s done in a fluid, flexible, feminine way) seems to be about relationships. So it’s with a bit of sadness and perturbment that I find out a really strong leader of a national literature organisation I’m on the board of is leaving. Can’t imagine who could replace her. In conversation with NWN Claire she was saying there’s a real dearth of leaders in this sector and that’s why organisations have to have a “succession strategy” which sounds like something King Henry 8th would have.  I couldn’t imagine wanting to be an organisation management type leader, but there’s obviously a need for more of them in the arts, as well as the other different types of leader. Not fast and furious in organisations, but influencing through their work, expressing attitudes and ways of being that might sometimes contrast current organisational models of efficiency and “power”.  I’m also sad that Isobel who has overseen and helped broker the relationship between me and NWN is leaving. It feels like she carries some of the narrative of this journey- but i’ll just have to have faith in my, and New Writing North’s abilities to construct and re construct the narratives and find shared ones. Apparently Aviva (formerly Norwich Direct) employ a corporate storyteller, to help employees and the company share their senses of who they are and when they’ve been. It sounds sort of beautiful and sinister at the same time.

Oompah

Serves me right. I blog about disappearing writers and then I disappear a bit. In various ways.

One way was that I found myself agreeing in conversation with a teacher about how I couldn’t add  much to her way of teaching writing. But then, Anna from NWN pointed out, if I can deconstruct the way I write and reconstruct that into ways to pass onto other people, I do have something to offer. I went back over all the other projects I’d done and wondered what I had in fact given. Usually it’s an energy, some ideas, the point of view of a performer and a permission. All things teachers can give perfectly well too. The unique thing I have I suppose is that I’m actually doing it. Though I would never do it in a classroom over several sessions. Much food for thought. The other disappearance, in the same project came where it isn’t written in specifically that the writers will learn and develop. Of course they will and we are, how could we work in close partnership with a school or teacher or children and not be alchemically changed each time?

Other disappearances; Actually,  there’ve been some good appearances. A wonderful two days in Hull getting people to write topical poems as part of my commission from the Humber Mouth Festival. I could have written my own news poems for two whole days (an alternative snapshot of my news) but it was much more exciting (and the poems were much bettter) for being created by listeners to Radio5Live, Radio Humberside, kids at the Warren youth project and the gig audience.  I got the teachers at an Artsmark Celebration Conference to swap their favourite words with each other yesterday and I traded “dappled” for “polyphonic”. That polyphony helps me to have a voice sometimes.

In other CLP-ness, had a meeting with Isobel from the scheme and Claire and Anna at NWN, which reassured me that they do feel there’s a value in having a writer hanging around. Claire said she thought it was powerful because it was making them think about some different directions. Since my fear was that they thought “she’s not in the office often enough and we’re not getting enough done” it was also reassuring that they thought I was managing the having a billion things ongoing well and feeding it into the placement. That’s good, because I do feel everything connects, but it can be quite scary when you’re in the middle of something, wondering if you’re “enough”. More so when on the school project I mentioned, there was an explicit questioning of whether I was enough. My worst fear generally being voiced. Actually, it’s not so bad if someone says you’re not but you and they are open to exploring how you could be. (Like in any relationship that makes me think).

Exciting stuff is afoot around performance poetry and youth slams at the moment and I hope I could mediate some of the work and thinking around this. I felt a bit like Lorraine from the Apprentice in a way. Having said for ages this would be a good idea. The Cassandra role of wanting to say “I told you so”. But that’s another means of shoring up low confidence I suppose.

Another disappearance and reappearance on the way…

Most bizarrely I’ll be doing a Michael Jackson poem to launch the Durham Brass festival, accompanied by the Oompah brass band who  perform pop songs with a slight Bavarian lilt…

The image is too surreal and enjoyable to not do.  I did at least say no to doing the poem through a megaphone. Hmm. Louder unamplified.

Whodunnit? the disappearing writer

I must blog this before I forget it. I had a great morning’s conversation with Tony Harrington from the Forge, arts in education and producing organisation in the North East today.

I went to talk about mentoring schemes for artists but what we talked about touched on everything around my placement. Two big revelations; where it clicked for me that the reason I think my values tally exactly with Creative Partnerships is that I get act according to my values when I work for them. By a sort of process of projection I’ve sort of thought “They’re therefore like me”. Typical narcissistic artist, absorbing everything into me-ness. Actually, they explicitly value educational attainment as a key measure of success. I value the ability to speak and hear, to think and be quirky, to connect and be truthful. As an organisation, they may help facilitate this- but they’re one of the government organisations who believe in art for education’s sake. Explicitly at least.

Also, still thinking about writer’s lack of collectivism (apparently felt makers have good groups in Northumberland…well, they would stick together…boom, boom.); randomly me having a “Manifesto” wouldn’t go down so well perhaps, but I do want to speak what isn’t so often said re writers in education. I’ve got two opportunities coming up- an Artsmark conference in Newcastle and the NAWE national conference. I want to talk about why writers go into schools, how they embrace chaos and can help schools do so, and how writers disappear at vital stages of lots of projects…but they should be coaxed back (for example-having writers not write is a disappearance of a writer I think).

Somehow I want to put those things coherently. And continue with the random institution of “Write a Poem about the News Day”. Next Wednesday, as part of the Humber Mouth Festival.

Still a bit too much to think about, but I’m usually better busy. And looking forward to pilot young people’s writing groups over the summer. An actual outcome to study. Action research. And chatting to interesting young folk about writing. And doing my own. Writeness visible and that.

Summery

There’s been comfort and satisfaction this week in feeling that I’m actually doing tangible stuff as part of the CLP.

I was quite buzzing after three and a half hours talking to Anna at NWN and putting together plans and actions for the next steps with young people’s projects. We’re going to pilot a group that’ll meet over the summer, using the format I’ve been using with the SAMA young writers group who’ve been guinea pigs. We’ll recruit for volunteers too and train them in working with young people’s writing groups. I also spoke to the North East’s museums literacy officer and was selling her the idea of running those groups in museums across the region too. She sounded keen- though said that some education officers would find the idea of facilitating a writing group scary.

I’m seeing it as a writing/reading/talking group though where all the members, including the facilitators learn from each other. It fits with the way creativity is being embedded in schools now- and kids are being asked to co construct their learning. I think some of this also comes from my reading that book (Micheline Wandor) challenging the traditional writers workshop set up. I think formats that allow multiplicity of approaches, diversity and conscious reflection on the thoughts and beliefs and values underlying your writing are a fair way forward (and can still produce and emphasise “quality” work- just with an appreciation of how disputed a term that can be).

A phD into the impact of creative writing on young people is being hosted by NWN and Northumbria University. After a burst of loving research I thought of going for it- but know I’d be far more excited about a theoretical approach and this seems to beg a very practical and evaluative one. (Not thirty thousand words before anyone’s even started on “What is writing?”

My own practice is still at the forefront of what I’m thinking about- I enjoyed getting to do a non-flowery poem at the Chelsea flower show, and I’m taking an extract from my one woman show to the Lit Up live literature conference in June.

Having enough money at the moment is pleasant too. Allowing me and my bloke to go to a Lakeland cottage for a few days, for me to replace my computer monitor without stressing and to buy a few nice, cheap, quirky dresses from a range called “Hell Bunny” for gigs and things. It’s for “Women who lead a punk and Gothic, alternative lifestyle” apparently. Hmm. I don’t. But I suppose writers are seen as leading an alternative lifestyle sometimes.

The conventional part of me likes being able to point to outcomes like a nearly completed set of guidelines to give to teachers and writers working in schools, to the work I’m doing with the young writers group and the up coming pilot volunteering scheme as measurable, actual actions.

Though perhaps the most powerful work of the Cultural Leadership Programme comes when I’m lying awake at 5 a.m thinking.

Swirling

Not blogged for a while-mainly due to extreme busyness, though I did do a post last week in a rare spare minute that got lost due to a recalcitrant computer connection.

I miss setting things down though. What’s happening with this placement thing? On a practical level, I’ve delivered a draft writer’s manifesto based on my conversations with writers and am working on creating a pilot mentoring scheme for writers working with young people. Also going to deliver some draft guidelines for writers working with young people, and am still facilitating a young writers group and using them as guinea pigs for ways I/NWN might work with young people in the future.

So, lots. But actually I think the placement is impacting everything else I do and making it bigger, or exaggerated somehow.

For example, I’d thought for a while that setting myself up as a company so I could run gigs, apply for project funding and sub contract surplus work (particularly writing and performance workshops) to other writers would be a good thing. Now, it seems more imperative and a responsibility. It seems a great vehicle to do the practitioner as leader thing. I was even more convinced after meeting the amazing performance artist Bobby Baker on Saturday Live. She seems perpetually busy too but has a company that supports both her own work and her outreach sort of work.

And, that’s the other part of my work that is being exaggerated. The me bit. Partly because I don’t want it to get drowned amongst everything else, partly because I recognise that supporting your individual practice is equally as important on the “Cultural leader” front (How often I return to that phrase- as if needing that tag to confer legitimacy on what I’m doing).

I’m previewing my show “The Rules of Engagement” at the Live Lit conference at the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal in June (well, a 15 minute excerpt) and have been doing some mini previews this week and will be going down to Arc in Stockton in a few days to show a final version to it’s “critical friend” Annabel Turpin.

I also did another telly thing on St George’s Day on BBC2’s Daily Politics and have an appearance coming up on BBC2’s Chelsea flower show coverage (with Alan Titchmarsh! eek!) and am pondering how to convey the “irreverent poet” that the Humber Mouth festival is billing me as when I do a topical poetry gig for them in June, alongside the “Here’s some lovely flowers” thing I imagine the flower show folks may hope for.

Plus there’s some great school projects ongoing in which I learn lots of things every time I do them.

So, at the minute, I’m like a squirrel frantically gathering many nuts in hope I’ll get to hibernate in the autumn. (er…possible inaccurate biological detail there)

Through doing

“Leading through practice”. What is this? I’m still not sure. One example might have been with the Hyperlexic gig I ran at the Saville Exchange last Saturday.  (Or as we rechristened it for the night, the Jimmy Saville Exchange, now then, now then, now then). It was something I initiated, based on my long held belief that spoken word and live literature benefit from good venues as partners to events.  Steve Bishop, Arts bloke at North Tyneside Council convinced me he’d be such when we spoke last year. He’s supported the event generously, and though the lovely little North Shields Arts Centre doesn’t have a strong history of similar events, once Apples and Snakes also came onboard with financial and marketing support, it felt like we had a really strong set up. The council suggested the centre’s youth theatre group be offered places on the masterclass with excellent stand up poet John Hegley. That led to a rather magical afternoon workshop where teenagers and new and established poets worked together beautifully.

The night gig saw an audience of over a 100, many new to live lit events, and a wonderful line up of Tyneside and Teesside talent-Simma, Scott Tyrrell and Michael Edwards plus London based, nationally known John Hegley. Several poets new and old entered the Dead Poet’s Slam (idea I nicked from Matt Harvey’s Wondermentalist Cabaret in Devon) and we got to hear the words of Baudelaire, Adrian Mitchell, Julia Darling and Philip Larkin among others, alongside the mainly comedy focused sets of the booked acts.

Leading up to the gig I had my usual reservations about organising things-the space in my head taken up with details, the mild frustrations and worries in giving up control of the event to other people-but then during the event, when it was a big, buzzing success I felt enormously chuffed to be so supported by so many competent people in having an idea coming to fruition. Also, though I’ve much wanted shiny events in shiny venues, I was glad that lots of new performers took to the stage too and benefitted from the workshop-and it feels like more will be inspired in the future. Just a good gig might still have left me feeling a bit empty I think- it’s the part where you know that it might have an impact on what people choose to speak and hear in the future that I find particularly exciting and fulfilling. Also, that it took place in North Shields-not a usual poetry place, and saw local people having somewhere that was theirs- and where they might speak in future.

I’m thinking about putting my part of the fee from the gig into starting up Hyperlexic as a Community Interest Company with a remit to spread quality words around. Gigs, publishing and workshops I think. The mild brain explosion that occurs when I get involved in something like this doesn’t seem to make the event itself suffer. And I even wrote two poems during the day during John’s workshop and sort of emjoyed compering. So maybe there are ways to fulfil lots of my creativities at once and bring a benefit to more people than just me at the same time…

The point

I’m inputting more than I’m processing at the moment, but a few days off over Easter, walking, eating and buying rhubarb may have helped a bit.

Talking to Paul Summers, North Shields based poet and extraordinary worker with young people is always interesting. As another writer had said the week before “You go on a project and Summers has always been before you and done amazing work, which bears his stamp and more people should see it”. I would do an injustice by summarising what he said, but his passionate belief in people working from…passionate beliefs (or clearly thought out principles and aesthetics) struck chords and rang bells.

At just the right time, or wrong time, I was also reading Valentine Wandenor’s critique of Creative Writing courses “The author isn’t dead, merely somewhere else”. She questions the lack of clear theories underpinning the now ubiquitous creative writing courses. On those she says (sort of) it’s as if literary theory never happened. I know that would make lots of people most chuffed. But it did.

Those writers have connected with some of the ideas (about ideas) swirling round my leadership-placement addled brain. Tomorrow I’ll be facilitating a session with some young writers who first came together as part of the South Asian Music and Arts Festival in Newcastle. Wondering if my underpinning beliefs about the value of people having a voice and expressing it well in speech and writing are enough.

Also, on watching Britain’s Got Talent, I wished some of the amazing dance troupes would also speak. Perhaps some poetry from them would embody one of the ways I’m imagining for the individual and the collective to merge usefully and interestingly. I’m nurturing mad ideas about how to make this happen, whilst already anticipating (imaginary) voices saying “It won’t work because”…

NOT the social anthropologist. Though confusingly I did an ethnographic PhD.