The 2nd of 60

Well, I’ve been inducted and now have a smart card that says I am a student for the next five years. Oh my. It seems such a long time but in reality it’s 60 months and I am already occupying the second of those 60.

Walking the doctoral path is going to be interesting and already things are beginning to shift and take shape. The research plan I had is not redundant but now that I am up and running (well actually, I am walking at the moment) I can see what a mammoth task I have taken on and how broad the vista of my work is. I need focus, focus, focus and I have spent the last few days thinking about why I want to do a PhD, what I want out of it and where I want to go after the journey.

All questions you’d think I’d have asked myself before applying.

I did ask these questions but now I am actually on the path everything seems somehow different, as if I’ve just gone from the black & white world of the application forms to the MGM, full technicolour of the real thing. Talking about a PhD is a lot different to doing it.

The questions I am asking are helping me hone in on my research topic and find that unique pixel that is mine and mine only.

I am not there yet but I’m working on it and making progress.

Just as well I have those 60 months isn’t it?

It’s oh so quiet…

August is the quietest month and I have been recharging my batteries and sorting out my writing files. You know how it is when you think a poetry collection is ready to go then a sequence shifts and disrupts the flow of the book? Well that’s what happened a few months ago with my third collection, The Line. But August sees me back on track with my mss ready to go to the poetry publishers open for submissions and with whom my work is (in my opinion) a “good fit”. A third collection seems a strange beast: long gone for me are the heady days of being the (young) new kid on the block, the emerging voice, the stranger in town with a stack of poems sticking haphazardly from my saddlebag. From my initial success I haven’t had to pitch a collection to a publisher as the publisher either approached me or took my hand off the minute I said I had a new book ready. We’ll see how I go this time…

In terms of my PhD I am preparing for my trip to Orkney in early September 2012. I am spending a week there during the International Science Festival and scoping for one of the live doctoral research projects. I’ve never been to Orkney before  but the  palimpsest of languages, history and settlement are going to provide a rich backdrop for a poet. Then there’s all that water. I love water (it’s one of the main reasons I’ve been wanting to visit Orkney for quite a long time now). And a lot of people don’t know this about me, but I almost joined the Navy in my late teens as I wanted to be a diver.  Having done a lot of free diving, snorkelling and a bit of sub aqua in the Med I seriously considered an aquatic-focused working life. If I’d signed up for the Navy, who knows where I’d be now. I continue to free dive when I can (though our seas are a bit nippy ) but don’t do sub aqua as a leisure activity due to the amount of tech and kit required.

August is a good month for reflection and I’ve been thinking about the kind of writer I was, the kind of writer I am today and the kind I would like to be. The answers emerge and then swim away. If one poem is a fish and a collection a shoal how do you even begin to hold a career’s worth of words, never mind project into the future? I am asking but I have no idea of the answers.

There will be radio silence now until I return from Orkney. I thought about blogging at least once while I am there but have made a decision to take paper, pen and camera only. I might decide to post a virtual postcard if I can take my eyes off the sea for long enough.

The letter…

This week I received – through snail mail – an A4 envelope about the part-time funding for my creative writing PhD. In the communication was a letter with feedback about my research proposal, an official offer letter and some T&Cs. This is such happy news as without the funding there’d have been no way I’d have been able to start the research. It means I’ve made it happen and can finally say I will be starting my PhD in the new academic year. The support is vital to the continued development of my work, but so much more than that, for me personally it is a new kind of validation of the last ten years of my career as a writer and creative practitioner.

Working as a freelance writer is rewarding, exciting, always challenging and the professional freedom and creative autonomy are wonderful. But all of that comes at a price: something I’ve only become aware of in the last couple of years since starting The/Poetry/Fold. The price is academic invisibility. “Creative Practitioner” as a job title does no justice to the huge workload and responsibilities of a freelance professional and to me has occasionally and rather worryingly, sounded like a financially secure diletente who wafts around being woolly and mystical or who sticks macaroni to bits of cardboard and calls it art when its just card and pasta. (Macaroni + card can equal wonderful, serious art, but not always and the context and intent of all art is so important.)

After ten years as a library and information professional, my freelance CV starts in 1998 and I’ve not had an employer/been an employee since. In the intervening years I have done innovative work I am truly proud of and have collaborated with some amazing people, artists and organisations. Briefly, I wanted to list what I’ve done as it is the back story for my PhD research; it’s the narrative of how I got from there to here and it involves not just me but a whole host of individuals and partners (there’s some great writing and organisational talent in the north east of England). I started to pull out all the festivals, events, projects, commissions, collaborations, performances, interventions etc. but the list quickly got too long to usefully reproduce here. I’ve had a significant founder and/or co-founder co-producer hand in the Bridge Writers, The Blue Room, ProudWords, How Gay Are Your Genes?, Stemistry and The Poetry Experiment, and that’s just the tip of the freelance iceberg. I was there when Mslexia Publications came into being and have worked in a huge variety of cultural venues in my region. There has been funding and remuneration for most of my freelance work, some of it handsome, some of it derisory, but I have been able to carve out a niche for myself and make a living. A familiar story to any serious freelance practitioner.

In everything I’ve done thus far I’ve always followed my heart and I don’t regret a moment of my career to date. However, I wish I’d been more strategic in terms of how I represented myself as a writer. Innovating, fund raising for, managing and/or delivering a lot of outreach (remember that old term?), public engagement and co-inquiry has been an irreplaceable experience but as the writer in that mix I am often sidelined as an individual artist. In great public engagement I’ve always believed all the partners and participants should be equal. What I haven’t always done is extend that mission to my own practice as a writer. Another familiar freelance story, I suspect.

Would I be more or less prolific as a poet/writer if I did not work in the creative sector at all? What if I stacked tins, practiced medicine, brokered insurance, or had joined the Navy? (I almost did join up when I was 17, as I really wanted to be a deep-sea diver). What if, what if? All moot points now, but interesting to highlight nonetheless as I do believe my freelance experience is one shared by many practicing and socially engaged artists. These are not the questions that my PhD will answer directly but they form part of the background, ambient noise that will surround my research.

I will be looking at how my collaborative working practices define and affect me, and my output, as a poet/writer and I can’t wait to get started. Without the A4 envelope I would have made another path for myself, I am sure, but it’s time to put my own practice first and to ask some important questions of my creative processes. It also – at this point in my career – feels just as important to open my ears to the great academic work and writing going on around the world. Yes, I want to add to this international creative writing debate and dialogue, but I also want to listen and to learn.

And the irony is I’ve never written so much new original work for a long time since starting on my Poetry/Fold and PhD path. I have begun my fourth collection of poetry (my third, The Line, is in need of a publisher) and to my huge relief I am writing prose again. The prose bug has never left me since finishing my MA and having some initial success as a fledgling novelist and to be writing in long lines again feels good, if a little scary for a died-in-the-wool poet. There are some new writing commissions in the pipeline including a column at the wonderful and long-standing north east cultural icon that is The Crack magazine and now I have my PhD funding I can start work in earnest on a variety of collaborative research/writing projects with partners like the Sage Gateshead.

Over the next few weeks I will be recharging my batteries after an intense 6-month period of PhD preparation – so there’ll be radio silence for a few weeks here a FoldedSpace. I need to point the stonework around our bay window and prevent the porch from disintegrating in this incessant rain. And I’ll be writing new poems about a man with a moth on his lapel.

My first paper

So I attended (and presented my first paper) at an international creative writing conference last weekend. And it was fascinating. I’ve been aware of Great Writing (held in London every June) for a few years but haven’t been able to attend until now. As a poet/writer who’s an art-science, medical humanities, public engagement and co-inquiry specialist, I get invited to conferences to speak about writing as a resource in other disciplines, but I’ve never spoken to a room of creative writing scholars, fellow writers and practitioners before. I’d never even submitted an abstract before or experienced that selection process. I actually thought, until a couple of years ago, that everyone got invited to speak at conferences. Shows you how much I knew back then…

For the conference I decided to talk about my writing, collaborative and teaching methodology, Strange Bedfellows. I’ve been using Strange Bedfellows for well over a decade now but have only just begun to reflect on it since I started my business, The/Poetry/Fold. And I can now see that reflection has set me on this PhD path (and the methodology is what I’ll be researching). Doing something very naturally, it developing organically and often in response to what crosses my path, has served me well as a writer. However, when non-writers started asking me about Strange Bedfellows – what it is and how it works – I realised I wasn’t very well equipped to answer.

A client who’d engaged me to do some CPD work asked me to explain the features and benefits of my creative writing approach. Now while I don’t want to dismantle my creativity so much that it’s rendered useless, I think that client’s question deserved a considered response. Initially this conversation took place in a commercial context: the client would be paying me for my training services. Fair enough then to ask about how it all works. I did my best and contextualised the approach by describing an actual workshop and the overall module rationale, but I was left with the undeniable realisation that while I know how to plan and deliver Strange Bedfellows, I don’t really understand how it works, especially in terms of how it affects my own writing practice.

The first thing I did after this incident – about 2 yeas ago and at the same time as starting The/Poetry/Fold – was to go online and look for academically focused creative writing journals and resources. I found some, but not as many as I thought I would. I discovered the AWP and AAWP and started to realise there was an international dialogue going on. A few articles and papers later I was excited about what I was finding. Some of what I read annoyed the hell out of me, some really resonated, some made me ask questions and made me want to read more widely.

At the conference last week I met lots of new people and listened to some amazing presentations. How I wished I’d had four heads so I could have attended all the panels simultaneously. In the end I came away wanting instantly to sign up for next year. I’ll be attending again and hopefully will get another opportunity to present about Strange Bedfellows. In future posts I may share some of my presentation and talk about some of the people I met but for now I have a poem sequence to work on (“The man with the moth on his lapel”). Thanks stopping by and taking the time to read my blog.

The why of it all…

Since the new year I have been wrestling with the challenge of adequately describing and then shoehorning aforementioned description of a 3-year PhD research project into a 700-word text box, in a funding application form, for an anonymous panel of people who’ve never met me and who’ve probably never (yes, I could be wrong, but I’m probably not) read a word of my published poetry or prose. What joy this task has been. I was initially being ironic when I typed the previous sentence but actually, my PhD journey thus far has been a bit of a revelation.

The support I have already received from my prospective supervisors has been amazing and I’ve found myself excited by the rapidly expanding academic vista that is spreading out before me: something that I did not expect (more on this in future posts). I didn’t get the full-time funding. But hey, that’s the way it goes and it’s not going to stop me. However, since starting this PhD thing I’m finding great writers, academics and practitioners whose work and research is resonating hugely with my experiences. Voices I’d never have found unless I’d started on this road. Right now I am reading Rethinking Creative Writing by Stephanie Vanderslice. It’s a great book and a huge relief to hear a voice that I can identify with. The book is right here to the right of my keyboard and I am clinging to it as I wrestle with the whys and wherefors of such an enormous undertaking as a PhD. Vanderslice’s work was among some of the first I found when I started preparing for the application form and I’d recommend her work to any writer/ practitioner thinking of dipping a toe into academia for the first time.

In my day and where I’m from people didn’t do PhDs. Where I’m from a lot of people didn’t make it to higher education. I hope this situation is changing but for me, growing up was devoid of any academic role models. I didn’t even know what academia was until I started to specialise in Intellectual Property research in my full-time, employed job as an Information Specialist. This is only relevant to help contextualise why finding academia exciting and meaningful is a significant revelation to me personally.

Anyway, I am ploughing on with the PhD preparation and the crushing disappointment of not securing full-time funding was the kick in the pants I needed. Now this isn’t some cod reverse psychology I am soothing myself with. I managed my 700-word description and I am still, on the whole, pretty proud of it and on board with it (although I am sure it will develop and change as I go along). What I hadn’t fully worked out was WHY I feel I need to do a PhD at this point in my life and career. My creative agency The/Poetry/Fold is going well in the face of the economic debris falling all around our ears, I’m writing and already working with some amazing people and communities. So why a PhD?

Today I can see it’s about recalibrating myself as a writer. I am collaborative by nature but have no idea how that collabortation affects my own writing. Something I need to take time to explore. I also deliver a Poetry/Fold course called Strange Bedfellows which utilises random ephemera, white space and juxtapostion. I’ve been using the Strange Bedfellows template for a long time and only started to reflect on it when I moved into CPD, training and mentoring work in the healthcare and education sectors a couple of yeas ago. I’d never heard of reflective practice until I worked with healthcare professionals and it’s helped me look at myself and the way I do my work and my writing in a whole new way. Once I started on that self-reflective path I felt I had to start The/Poetry/Fold. And I’m so glad I have. Unbidden, I have had feedback and comments from colleagues saying how innovative it is. I’m not sure. And this isn’t false modesty, I am proud of my achievements, I just know there’s a lot of practitioners out in the field doing lots of amazing work – work that for the most part, doesn’t show up on the academic radar.

For now I think I’ll leave it there but I will be returning to a lot of themes and strands in future posts. Finally, what I wanted to share is that last night, at a screenwriting event I attended in Newcastle with a colleague, I shared for the first time the eureka moment I had a couple of weeks ago. After all these years (14 and counting) as a freelance writer and creative practitioner I feel I understand – and I mean a deeper-level understanding – why I need to collaborate and what I really want to do with my writing (my poetry, at least). There’s not going to be any big reveal, I’m just not sharing what I’ve realised at this precise moment. But I will. I just feel liberated and excited and ready to move on to new things: and all because I wrote 700 words in a form for a panel of anonymous people who’ve probably never read a single word I’ve written. And yes, I could be wrong.

The Folded Space blog

Welcome to my new blog, Folded Space.

Folded Space is about all the things that happen in the gaps between my various work and practice strands.

Folded Space is a place for me to share what’s happening with my developing PhD research and the attendant ephemera around my Strange Bedfellows workshop/course template.

The idea is that I post things that don’t fit into my other more traditional websites – The/Poetry/Fold (my business site) and Stoneandsea (where I showcase my own writing and writing practice).

It’s a work in progress and I welcome comments from fellow writers, practitioners and academics.

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