Inspired by Jean Atkin’s unusual use of place in her work I thought this month I would turn to the concept of Writer-in-Residence and see how that can help to freshen up our own writing. A residency is like being a Laureate for a particular place or organisation and can be loosely interpreted or come with quite a weight of responsibility. You might just be in this place to write and research in order to meet your own goals. Or you might be asked to run workshops, create a publication based on your residency, run a competition, interact with visitors and employees. You might have included these ideas in your initial proposal to a place you’ve had firmly in your sights for some time, or you might have been invited to be writer-in-residence because you have a special connection to this place.
Ian McMillan has been poet-in-residence for Barnsley Football Club and for the English National Opera as well as being Humberside Police’s Beat Poet – the world’s first poet-in-residence with a police force. I can’t even begin to imagine what gems of new poems came out of these residencies! As well as a residency at the London Science Museum’s Dana Centre, Heidi Williamson also became writer-in-residence at the John Jarrold Printing Museum. This residency helped inform Williamson’s second collection The Print Museum (Bloodaxe 2016). Novelist Rebecca Williams and poet Maura Dooley were successive writers-in-residence at the Jane Austen Museum. As part of her residency, Dooley invited fellow poets to express their connections with Austen, resulting in a poetry anthology, All My Important Nothings.
The role can be paid, but, more often than not, is unpaid. It’s quite hard to get an official role as a writer-in-residence, the most obvious organisations will have definite ideas about who they want and why, the less obvious organisations will need some persuading about the value of this role for their organisation. We are, of course, living in unusual times, many companies, art galleries and museums are unable to open their doors at the moment, and do not have the energy or the funding to take on new projects, so let’s do it for ourselves! Choose a place which enthrals you. Proclaim yourself unofficial writer-in-residence. Armed with nothing more threatening than pen and paper, visit this place as often as you can. When museums and galleries can once more open their doors, choose your favourite room and sit in the presence of great paintings and fascinating objects, day after day. Go out and immerse yourself in the sounds and scents of a walled garden for a whole day every month, watch it change, see who comes and goes. Write.
However restricted our lives are at the moment, we can all find a bench in a park or tucked back from the pavement, maybe in a city square. Sit there and imagine who else has sat there too. Designate yourself writer-in-residence of this bench and write the stories of what and who it has seen – this may result in linked pieces of micro-fiction. It could be the basis of your next novel.
Writing in situ is nothing new, but designating yourself in this way is, perhaps, something you have not previously attempted, and it might change your mindset as a writer for you are unofficially official! Let’s see if this makes us engage with our beloved places differently.
As well as writing extensively about motorway service stations, Ella Frears was poet-in-residence of the number 17 bus in Southampton. What a wonderful idea! Next time I go to Paris I am going to be poet-in-residence of my favourite Metro line, Line 6. I will ride the train countless times, explore every stop and drink in the atmosphere of the stations and their surroundings. I will not be official but I will gain everything I need to write something fresh and new. People might stop and talk to me as I sit and write and they will all appear in my poems. I might even cache some of my poems for passengers to find in true guerrilla poet style.
Sue Burge is a poet and freelance creative writing and film studies lecturer based in North Norfolk in the UK. She worked for over twenty years at the University of East Anglia in Norwich teaching English, cultural studies, film and creative writing and was an Associate Lecturer in Creative Writing with the Open University. Sue is an experienced workshop leader and has facilitated sessions all over the world, working with a wide range of people – international students, academics, retired professionals from all walks of life, recovering addicts, teenagers and refugees. She has travelled extensively for work and pleasure and spent 2016 blogging as The Peripatetic Poet. She now blogs as Poet by the Sea. In 2016 Sue received an Arts Council (UK) grant which enabled her to write a body of poetry in response to the cinematic and literary legacy of Paris. This became her debut pamphlet, Lumière, published in 2018 by Hedgehog Poetry Press. Her first full collection, In the Kingdom of Shadows, was published in the same year by Live Canon. Sue’s poems have appeared in a wide range of publications including The North, Mslexia, Magma, French Literary Review, Under the Radar, Strix, Tears in the Fence, The Interpreter’s House, The Ekphrastic Review, Lighthouse and Poetry News. She has featured in themed anthologies with poems on science fiction, modern Gothic, illness, Britishness, endangered birds, WWI and the current pandemic. Her latest pamphlet, The Saltwater Diaries, was published this Autumn (2020) by Hedgehog Poetry Press. More information at www.sueburge.uk