“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…
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”…
Down to London and back in a day on the train and not such a big deal really. Someone from an animal shelter also took the 11.30 down and the 7pm back; they had a board with a photo collage on pleading for more funds, and a picnic basket with either a picnic or an animal in it.
My meeting was with Isobel from the Arts Council and Nicola from the Cultural Leadership programme itself. Three hours of talking and listening has helped refine what I’m doing in my head. And vindicated my horrified reaction when people say “Congratulations on your new job”. It’s not a job it’s a placement. Phew.
I’ve started talking to writers about their work with young people and am interested in the things that don’t often get talked about. Or maybe they do, but I haven’t. Energy and work in education- where does it come from, where does it go? Writers talk of the kids giving them energy, but the work taking energy. One writer talked about working in schools feeding her humanity if not her creativity. I thought that was a definitive and final statement- but then another writer attributed having learned everything he knows about writing poetry to his work in schools. And made such interesting links between communal creativity (How humankind had always written up, until the last 130 years) and the development of an individual “authentic” voice (Privileged in our dominant cultural discourses).
Isn’t marrying this stuff up hard? Are there new ways to do it? I’m getting more interested in the research side of this work. I like the listening/speaking process. I had a wonderful few hours of it yesterday when Annabel, director of the Arc in Stockton acted as a “critical friend” while I talked through possible structures for my one woman stand up poetry show. So much seems to happen in that space between people when words are swirling and being played with and freed up.
That’s what happens in good workshops too. And it’s shared not lone.However I would much prefer to be in a lone space on this packed train. Perhaps I should do what 40 stone Americans do and book two seats in future…
In the hallowed land of Borders bookshop I got a “How to Research” book by the Open University Press and have constructed a short questionnaire for the writers I’m going to interview in the next couple of weeks. They’re writers who already do lots of work with young people and work with New Writing North alot.
It feels good to actually be doing something concrete now. Quite alot of things I’ve done this week have fed into my thinking. But more in a mushy sort of way. “Full on Futures” was a day organised by Creative Partnerships at Arc to get year 9s motivated to think on creative careers. I did very practical half hour workshops, getting them to storytell, speak about themselves and explore their opinions on the value of creativity- but what I didn’t do, and couldn’t have done at this point was advise some sort of obvious career path into writing. (and I don’t think it’s enough just to say “Write!”, though heck, that does help). Claire, the North East Apples and Snakes co ordinator was there handing out info and it does feel that hopefully that performance poetry organisation may plug some gaps, but there is still a big, gaping void mostly for writers aged 11-18.
I’ve also been to the launch event of the African writers Festival at the Northern Writers Centre and been inspired by Ben Okri (“Doesn’t life have a dream like quality?” and Jackie Kay, in very different ways. Then, last night, a gig at the Chillingham Arms in which I tried out a new poem on stage and hoped it might give me a key to the one woman show I’m doing (as an associate artist for the Live Literature Consortium). I also heard a writer say that working in schools made them tired (and knew that feeling so well, but wonder if anything can help balance this for writers?).
Now I’m getting on with writing a poem for the Journal Culture Awards (that will somehow mention all 39 nominees and be interesting and funny and read well on the night…) I’m looking forward to freer time for writing from September for a while, but for a now feel like I’m learning a hundred things a day and really caring about the role of writing again. For a time after I’d finished my family memoir that somehow drained away for a while. Now I keep coming up with plans to get more people writing and reading and more voices heard. Being in the centre of that again is encouraging the feeling I think. So many people and organisations are doing it. Which ones will stick?
I went to the launch of the Foyle Young Poet’s competition at the Sage this week. Was surprised that anyone would express surprise that there are few North East entrants. Foyle and Poetry Society feel far away from the North East and I don’t see much publicity around. Quite apart from the fact that it feels like lots of teachers are battling issues in ways that may make them feel getting their kids into a random poetry competition isn’t the answer. However I was left feeling that it would be wonderful if there was a sudden huge influx of North East lads and lasses entering and they stormed the competition in future years. Twice winner Caroline Bird read-I really enjoy her work and wondered how on earth she found and used such a strong poetic voice so early (first collection published by Carcanet at 14). She said she went to a Steiner school, which seems not unconnected, though their emphasis on everyone being equal she said, meant her early literary success was played down (maybe even derided a bit) there. What was huge for her and fellow two times winner Richard O Brien was going on an Arvon Course, being treated like writers and meeting other young writers. Richard has started an E Zine, Pomegranate, to publish some of their work.
I’ve also had random useful chats with Mel, the Tyne and Wear Museums Hub Literacy Officer who said maybe museums could host young writers groups, and with Colonel Bob Stewart. Former commander of UN forces in Bosnia. He was a guest on Radio 4’s Saturday Live when I was poemming and defined leadership as inspiring people, and having good and definite ideals to do it with. I’d been thinking about and wondering about leadership, since I’m on this Cultural Leadership Development programme. I also spoke to Isobel who helps co ordinate the programme and she was saying i’ve to make sure I take out of it what I want. I’m still thinking on that.
As I left Broadcasting House pondering these matters, a couple stopped me and asked which direction the Oxford Street shops were. I pointed vaguely to the right and said they were that way. Then said Regent St was the other way, but hesitated and said it wasn’t but superfluously added “You’ll get to them sooner than you think though” as they walked off. A minute later I was in a newsagents looking at crisps when I heard a man’s voice round the corner asking the counter assistant which way the Oxford Street shops were. I was torn between revealing myself and saying “Told you so” when the assistant confirmed they should head right, and making sure I stayed looking at Hula Hoops an unnaturally long time so they wouldn’t feel embarassed. I felt I had failed a test of leadership. Clearly I’d been vague, unconvincing and somehow seemed like the sort of person who would lie about the best way to the shops.
Still researching. Talking, googling, thinking, reading. Roddy Doyle’s “Fighting Words” centre in Dublin, modelled on Dave Eggars’ 826 Valencia in San Francisco. I send an email, asking if I can come over and see what they’re doing. That part of this placement is a luxury. I would have wanted to do that anyway. Wouldn’t have been automatically funded or encouraged as a random, interested writer. Today’s Guardian mentions the Simon Bolivar orchestra coming to the South Bank. I’d seen a documentary on them and Venezuela’s Sistema which sees a quarter of a million kids in orchestras. There’s a pilot in Scotland. Some criticism apparently that transplanting Latin America’s radical social action won’t work here.
I think about how creative writing isn’t as communal, as immediately exciting as music. But that there is probably an unthought of way to make it so. Maybe. Add in passion somehow. As the Simon Bolivar orchestra apparently does.
After school groups run by volunteers. How could they be impassioned?
I spoke to Rachel Adam the director of the Juice Festival this week. It’s a young people’s festival funded by the Newcastle Gateshead Initiative from October 22nd-November 8th. She says it’s one of the few young people’s festivals that will have as much of a focus on the children creating work as experiencing work produced for them. I like the sound of that. Reflect again that the North East is a good place to try creative things. Connected island as we are.
Through the window of the New Writing North offices the view is entirely blocked by the scaffolded edifice of a new university building. Perhaps this is a metaphor. Perhaps it’s just part of a sentence constuction. Anyway. I’m here with a shiny identity card, use of a desk, Mac, phone and shelf in a little grey desk tidy thing. I didn’t expect these things when I was sat in an airless office at Northern Stage being interviewed for this cultural development leadership position less than three weeks ago. I enjoyed the interview because it’s nice to get a chance to talk about something you’re enthusiastic about. Ways to get young people into writing, ways to be a writer working with young people. I wasn’t sure I wanted the job though. I’ve always thought I’d be rubbish at arts admin and after a fallow autumn, lots of other projects and opportunities had started coming in. Claire was saying though that this could be an opportunity to make this sort of work writer friendly, give writers a voice, innovate ways of doing that. Also I knew Claire and Anna had been to 826 Valencia, the San Francisco building where Dave Eggars runs writing workshops for kids behind a pirate store front. I was excited about ways to work like this in the North East.
When they said we could spread the placement over a year not six months, I was sold. So far we’ve talked, planned, written lists. Mainly to start with I’ll be talking to writers and young people and the people who work with them. Seeing what’s out there. Seeing what else could be. Starting this blog I suddenly had an epiphany. We’ve talked about possibilities of things like writers getting time to write built into projects with young people. Surely it would make sense for this placement as Associate Writer to include some time for me to do some actual…writing. What/how, dunno, since I had the idea five minutes ago, but the nice bit about being in the New Writing North office was that I got immediate nodding of heads from Claire and Olivia. I don’t know how often I’ll come in here. My seaside house is good for working and writing and lots of what I’ll be doing will be meetings. But often a different space feels inspiring and having this little space of own to drop into could well allow me to combine the roles of a cultural leader (whatever that is; to be discovered during the course of this year) and writer, without allowing one to overwhelm the other. And actually, though I’ve conjured grey office metallic-ness, sitting on this desk are also a beautiful bouquet of orange tulips Claire got me as a welcome.
If you’re interested in writers and their work with young people, then please do drop into this blog over the next year with comments and suggestions. Collaboration, partnership, networking, researching. These are some of the words buzzing round my head. But also; tulips, popcorn, spiral.