Tuesday, 11 February 2014

'We're passing to you': poetry, young writers and football

Radio 3 recently ran a series in which 5 contemporary poets were invited to write personal letters to a young poet, inspired by Rilke's classic correspondence. Over the past two weeks, my laureate role has given me the opportunity to work with young writers all across Derbyshire, from Eckington to Glossop, and it's been an inspiring process: I'd be more interested to read their letters of advice to me than vice versa!

Last week I went to Chesterfield's mighty Proact stadium to run a workshop for Year 6 students from New Whittington Primary. I was encouraging them to write about their favourite things and their favourite places in Chesterfield and was humbled by their enthusiastic response. Instead of listing possessions as their favourite things, most of the pupils chose to write about friends, family, pets or treasured photographs. When they were asked to describe parts of Chesterfield that mean something to them, the poems ranged from an ode to the Crooked Spire to a homage to KFC, with everything else in between. You can read the Chesterfield Post's write up of the day here and see a video of me reading my poem 'Talk of the Town' at the Proact. Lots of the Year 6s were Spireites fans and were excited about the possibility of Chesterfield going to Wembley...

Working with students from New Whittington Primary
Then this weekend I took a drive over Winnats Pass in dazzling sunshine to run some workshops for families at New Mills and Glossop libraries, in honour of National Libraries Day. The workshops were particularly well attended by children and we spent the day writing letters (some in the form of poems) to our favourite characters from books. I learned a lot from the budding young writers at Glossop, who told me about David Walliams' brilliant books for children, including 'Gangsta Granny', which had me in stitches after only a few pages.

Later this month I'll be working in Eckington, encouraging Year 6 students to respond to local history through poetry and to enter their work for the 'Eckington Echoes' poetry competition, open to anyone who lives in Eckington. If you'd like more information about the competition, please contact Alison Betteridge.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

An Open Book

This Saturday it's National Libraries Day, giving us a welcome excuse to celebrate our favourite books and mark the importance of having public spaces where we can access those books. With libraries across the country under threat, Derbyshire library users might be particularly aware of the nearby campaign to save Sheffield libraries, after it was revealed that 16 facilities may be shut across the city. A petition about the proposed cuts can be accessed here.

I have Chesterfield Library in my hometown to thank for my love of poetry - when I first got interested in creative writing as a teenager, I used to spend Saturday afternoons in there scanning the poetry shelves, looking for new things to read. Chesterfield library was the first place I really had access to contemporary poetry collections, work by people I'd not heard of before but instantly engaged with. I can vividly remember reading 'Roddy Lumsden is Dead' in there one rainy weekend and feeling like a new world of books had opened up to me. The idea that other young writers might not get the same opportunities one day is unthinkable.

Fortunately for Derbyshire folk, the future for libraries looks less bleak here than it does in Sheffield and this Saturday the county will be hosting events for National Libraries Day, including two workshops with your local laureate at Glossop and New Mills libraries. I'll be encouraging workshop participants to tell me about their favourite books and to use those books as a starting point for a new piece of writing (a letter to one of the book characters, perhaps, or a poem about the first time they read that book).

I have too many favourite books to mention. As you'd expect, many of those are poetry titles. But I've always loved novels too and one of the books I seem to get drawn back to time and again is Graham Swift's 'Waterland', a haunting portrait of the fens. I like it because, as well as telling a compelling story, it seems to capture the mood of fenland places in a way that nothing else does, a way I can't quite put my finger on. It reminds me of the impulse that makes me want to write poetry.

One of the pleasures of reading novels, of course, is finding out what's new. Last Tuesday I was in London for the announcement of the Costa Prize. It was won by a first book, 'The Shock of the Fall' by Nathan Filer, a debut about schizophrenia and grief. It follows the narrator Matthew's descent into schizophrenic illness following the death of his younger brother. Nathan Filer is only the fifth novelist to win the prestigious Costa Prize with a first book. If you want to read Nathan's award winning novel, I hope you can find it in your local library this Saturday....