The phrase “poet in residence” might seem to imply you have to invite some rhyming bard to move in with you. But for me it has never yet involved bed and board or indeed any change of address. Instead what I’ve always loved about residencies is the variety of experiences they offer and the chance to connect with people I might never otherwise get to meet.
I’ve done residencies in schools, museums, galleries, libraries, pop-up shops, community centres and online. What I like best is when I get to run workshops inspiring other people to write poetry plus a commission to write about how they’ve inspired me. As part of being poet in residence for the Royal Shakespeare Company, I ran workshops for local people from rhyme time toddlers to octogenarians who’d survived World War II. This in turn inspired a promenade theatre piece as well as a digital storytelling map and an app where users could listen to poetry as well as create their own poems. One of my favourites was the year I spent with a group of Turkish-speaking women refugees. They taught me how to cook kofta meatballs and do traditional Kurdish dance moves as I asked them about their lives. Many of them had fled political as well as domestic violence. One woman described how she’d arrived from Kurdistan at the age of 15 (without a word of English) to be married to a man 30 years older than her whom she’d never met. He was an alcoholic who beat her for years before she finally left him when he broke her young son’s arm. These women had unbelievably tough lives and yet they were always laughing and shouting over each other. They were some of the funniest people I’ve ever had the privilege of working with and I found their struggles deeply inspiring.
But then I’ve never really wanted to be the kind of poet who sits alone in an attic writing about flowers. I’ve been reading Eavan Boland again recently, the late feminist Irish poet who didn’t hold her punches when it came to the suffering of other women: “the fall/ into forked dark/into python needs/heaving to hips and breasts/and lips and heat/and sweat and fat and greed”. No daffodils or gently flowing streams here. But I prefer poetry that is visceral in the political and personal connections it strives to make. The bilingual poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa was recommended to me the other day: “lipstick blotted on tissue/bitten lips, a rough kiss/all the red bled into pads and rags/the weight of red, the wait for red, that we share”. It’s the lack of sentimentality and the courage to put into words what women are still made to feel ashamed of, their own bodies, that I admire.
I like poetry that engages with the contemporary world. I spent three years as poet in residence on BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Live. This was an interesting challenge as I had to write poems inspired by each week’s guest, as well as current events, then read them live on air. I always remember the conversation in the green room between Giles Duley, a photographer who lost both his legs and an arm when he stepped on an IED in Afghanistan, and Noah Stewart, an African-American opera singer. They bonded over their struggles with prejudice and seemed to have no idea how inspiring their courage to keep going in the face of adversity really was. Poetry for me is about finding redemption through shared experience. As Seamus Heaney put it: “So hope for a great sea-change/On the far side of revenge./Believe that further shore/Is reachable from here./Believe in miracle/And cures and healing wells”. I don’t believe poetry is primarily a solitary occupation because it is what we turn to at times of great joy and great sorrow. From weddings to funerals, it is about what brings us together. My favourite Irish poet is still Patrick Kavanagh: “We are not alone in our loneliness./Others have been here and known/Griefs we thought our special own.”
So even if you don’t want to let a poet move into your house, consider letting a poem take up residence in your life.
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