So how does a ‘virtual’ writer in residence work?

Last year I was lucky enough to be invited to be one of the writers in residence at the Alde Valley Spring Festival in Suffolk. It was an amazing time. I wrote amongst bluebells, was inspired by the land, and also the art, and started a project of writing a haiku a day which carried on for nearly a year – a project I’m delighted to say will result in a pamphlet to be published next year by the wonderful Maria at Coast to Coast to Coast.

This year, things are different. Although the White Farm (where the festival takes place) does have a picnic table long enough for social distancing!

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Different, but I’m happy to say, still inspiring. I was lucky enough to be paired with the artist, Perienne Christian who is exhibiting her beautiful work at the festival. Do look at her catalogue here, below is one example.

Back garden with crow HR

We began with an exchange – but not of words and art. Instead, maybe because we were at the height of lockdown, we sent each other kefir grains and sourdough starter. The collaboration, you could say, was fermenting even from the beginning!

I spent some time with Perienne’s work, and also reading through her own writing. Then I let it sit. It felt important that my poems weren’t a direct and maybe forced response to an image or a narrative I saw in her work. Instead I wanted to see what bubbled up (back to fermenting!) At first, I just had fragments, words, and it was frustrating not to be there, walking through the forests, down the lanes to the river, listening to Suffolk birdsong and …. that was my clue. To listen.

And so with this collaboration – maybe because we weren’t meeting to talk and I wasn’t directly in the space – I spent more time on my own trying not to think about what I should write!

Eventually, and in its own time, a poem did come up. And then another. I nervously sent a package to Perienne, and was delighted when she came back to say that they felt ‘somehow how my brain thinks, come to life in poems.’

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Over this strange time, this very socially distanced collaboration and the chance to be a virtual writer in residence has been a truly nourishing creative act. You can see all the artists’ work at the festival online, and do visit if and when you can. It’s a magic place. I can’t wait to go back in person and to work more with Perienne, but in the meantime, here’s one of the poems I wrote when I was there ‘in spirit’.

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A visit to The Library of the Birds of London

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The complete joy of hearing birdsong again is making up for a stop-start spring this year. And thinking about birds, I had a joyful visit to the Whitechapel Gallery in London last week, mostly to visit the giant aviary created by American artist, Mark Dion.

Only four visitors at a time are allowed in the aviary – well, four people and the twenty zebra finches who are temporarily living there. So you stand surrounded by birds completely ignoring you, going around their own business, pooing on books and making nests from the linings of hats…

And there’s something about how they absolutely don’t care they are an ‘art work’ that made me take time, to go slowly, to look again at all the artifacts around the aviary so very deliberately placed there. The books on cats, the bird books from all round the world, the photos of David Attenborough, all the exploring equipment, the amount of knowledge we  humans feel we need for such a simple thing as looking at birds…

I loved it, and thoroughly recommend a visit. It’s on until 13th May. It’s part of Mark Dion’s ongoing exploration of the relationship between nature and culture, and includes a reading room with hand-made wallpaper featuring extinct animals (I heard a granny explaining that loudly to her grandson), findings from mudlarks, and so much more.

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My favourite was finding out about the The Ladies’ Field Club of York. This was a previous exhibition for  the National Railway Museum in York, in which imaginary female amateur naturalists from the turn of the century set out on a field trip together.

Joy indeed. Here’s the artist talking about it…

Papermaking in the garden

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Back in the summer (remember that far back, when the sun shone and everything?), I went on a day papermaking course at Morley College in London. I was drawn to it by the fact we were going to be using natural plant materials, but what I hadn’t expected was that I would fall in love with the little college garden off Waterloo, and especially the plants grown for colour.

It was a taster session rather than a real course, but led by a real expert, Lucy Baxendale. There’s a course starting in June though, you can sign up here – I’m tempted. It was such a joy to go round looking for seeds, plants and textures to use, to feel the gooey mixture (like Blue Peter, prepared earlier for us) give as it turned from plants into paper. Yes, that real pleasure in getting your hands dirty and actually making something.

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Here are the scraps I took away with me:

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And I had just the poem I knew I wanted to write on the one I made using honesty. Here it is:

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My father takes Rupert Brooke’s poems to France, 1945

This knot of honesty I picked today
must have fallen out of my pocket
so you’ll have to believe me when I say

each leaf was thinner than a page
in the book of poems my father
took to war. I like to think

it was the weight behind each word
that kept pushing him to a future
he can’t have dared write himself:

to love and be so loved. Though once
reading nonsense rhymes at bedtime,
he leant so far into that night’s book

I started crying, sensing how
he wanted to topple into it,
just as he must have done once

smelling Brooke’s sweet honeyed tea
above the stench of mud and blood,
this other world he could slip into.