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.