This is the second part of our series of interviews with our two, ever-doughty Shingle Street poets-in-residence. You can read the first interview with Amy Key here. This month we spoke to poet, editor and outdoor runner, Nia Davies, on everything from Sinbad the Sailor to the Suffolk coastline and haunted weapons training facilities. Again, a big thank you to Poetry School trustee Daphne Astor and her friend Tim Miller (owner of the Shingle Street cottage) for offering this residency opportunity.
So Nia, welcome back. How was it?
Nia: It was wonderful! It’s very helpful indeed to have a full week out of my daily life with time dedicated to thinking, writing, talking about and reading poetry. Each day I woke up with the sun reflecting off the sea into my window, came down stairs to find Amy writing a poem, went for a walk or a run, then read, wrote or edited poems. In the evening (which started fairly early) it was extremely dark and quiet, there is hardly any light or noise pollution, so it’s just the sound of the fire, the wind and far off waves on the shingle. We spent these long evenings discussing poetry, writing and also eating very nice local Suffolk pork and smoked foodstuffs.
How were you expecting to respond as writers as you set off?
Nia: Well I’ve had a week’s residency before in Whitstable in Kent (with the Expansionists) and I found it to be a very good boost to my practice. So I was expecting to at least write a handful of good poems but also to move onwards in some way, to push past certain barriers or engrained habits, which is what happened in Kent. I was also expecting to feel some emotional tug in the Suffolk landscape. I used to visit the area as a child to see my grandfather. He was a great supporter of my writing but he lived in Suffolk with his second wife who made our visits quite difficult.
What actually happened? Any surprises?
Nia: It was interesting how recognisably Suffolk the area was – the pigs, the ancient woodland, the shingle, the big sky, the small historic towns. These are things I remembered but to add to that there is militarised nature of the area – there is a barracks nearby, three Martello towers, a Young Offenders Institute/youth custody centre and of course the (reportedly haunted) ex-weapons testing facility turned nature reserve of Orford Ness nearby.
I had not been on residencies before with another writer. So some of the loneliness or restlessness that comes with lone residencies was not there and instead I got to talk ideas over, have fun, unwind from my poetry-thoughts and be cooked for by Amy who is a wonderful poet (and cook). It’s quite a small cottage so you need to spend the week there with someone you know you get on with. As well as being good friends, Amy and I have been in workshops together and we also edit a journal together – Poems in Which. So working and living together went as well as expected.
Perhaps one surprise is that towards the end of the week, instead of wanting to run away to the poetry festival in Aldeburgh for some excitement we actually realised we wanted to stay in the cottage over the weekend and keep working. We met with some of the poets in attendance at the festival on the Friday evening – including Julia Bird from the Poetry School – and I think it’s because they were all so curious about the cottage and our week in it that we realised how lucky we were.
Another surprise is just how citified I’ve become – even though I spent parts of my childhood in fairly quiet rural places. The intense dark and quiet were quite irrationally frightening – we ventured outside with sparklers on one night but I was quite daunted by that big open dark. I thought I was a bit tougher!
I was also surprised just how many interesting things happened on the beach: stranded mariners looking for a non-existent river, children with various interesting instruments observing the vegetated shingle, people tending to a white line of shells and white pebbles that stretched from the houses to the sea, the weather fronts coming in.
What did you produce?
Nia: A lot of thoughts, observations and notes, ideas for new and developing projects and crucially (subject to me deciding they are terrible and throwing them away) two near-complete poems and two draft poems.
One poem was for Amy Key’s Best Friends Forever project which we talked about in detail in the podcast we made. Amy brought with her Sarah Peters’ collection 1996 which I loved. Her poetry evokes such intense feelings of being a child or an adolescent. Amy also wrote a brilliant long and moving poem set in her childhood whilst on the residency. These things were both spurs for me to get on with my Best Friends Forever poem which I knew would also contain some of the feeling of late childhood / early teens. You can hear more about this in one of our recorded conversations.
I also worked a great deal on editing a manuscript which I am putting together so there was a lot of finishing of half-formed poems and translating notes, turning scraps of ideas into real life pieces or tweaking nearly finished poems.
We recorded three in-depth conversations about topics which had been preoccupying us: memory (particularly childhood memory), friendship, techniques such as cut-up poems, avoiding poetry of place and tourist-poetry, and general reflections on the place and time we were occupying.
Amy produced a lot of nice meals and I ate them. Yum.
The Poetry School invited you to take part in this residency – and that’s often how residencies work, an organisation issuing a specific invitation to a writer. Do you have any advice for proactive would-be resident poets who might like to organise an extraordinary writing experience for themselves?
Nia: Obviously if you’re willing/able to pay something there are plenty of appropriate places you can go to but you could also set up partnerships with people who have appropriate spaces – perhaps do a skills swap. I once stayed at my aunt’s caravan in West Wales, I also attended the Expansionists residency in Whitstable which is free – subject to a successful application. I know poets who have stayed at other poets’ houses or second homes. Another group of poets I know are spending a weekend away in a friend’s new but not yet moved-into house. There’s housesitting, pet-sitting etc. Think about your own contacts and what you can offer in return. Even if it’s just a couple of days out of your usual environment – even in a different space in your own area – that can work. I don’t think it has to be rural. In fact in an ideal world I’d do a residency somewhere remote and then in a city too.
I also think you can create the conditions of a residency closer to home – go to the library, cut the internet off, explore your own environment with new eyes etc etc. It’s never not worth asking people you know. The local Buddhist centre once let me use their space to write in everyday for a few weeks – I’m happy I thought to ask them in the first place.
There is actually a lack of affordable or free residencies for writers and translators in the UK so the more that can be set up the better. Other countries offer more – especially in North West Europe and North America. There is a Pinterest board of residencies around the world (but particularly in Europe) for writers and translators which I created for my work at Literature Across Frontiers (http://www.pinterest.com/makinglittravel/a-world-away-residencies-for-writers-and-translato/) and there are also web databases of residencies such as ResArtis and Residency Unlimited which have listings of a huge variety of different places around the world – often set up for all kinds of artists.
How will you be editing / developing the work you’ve produced?
Nia: The first poem I wrote was my Best Friends Forever poem which Amy and I discussed at length and I recorded a draft on the podcast. This will be published in the new year in Amy Key’s Best Friends Forever anthology out from Emma Press. I was very lucky to have the editor there with me to discuss the poem in detail. Apparently she is also writing a kind of response to this poem – which shows how the chain of influence and ideas can work in these closely collaborative experiences.
The other three poems are in draft form and I’ve written pieces about the development of two of them. These two are particularly raw in their state – almost notes actually – and I’ve also included some actual notes that I used as a starting point for one of them (working title: ‘People on the beach’ – I need a new title!).
I tend to have a hunch when I’ve written something that it is good and will go on to be better. But I can also be surprised about things that die a death a month or so later and also other poems which develop new lives at later editing stages. Recently I’ve been trying to enter into a particular feeling when editing a poem – almost a form of hypno-translation (creative interpretation and re-writing) of my own drafts or notes. In fact one of the poems is even about this very process – ‘Feelings’.
I wouldn’t normally air poems in this state but it’s been very interesting to reflect on them mid-development and also the process of collaboration has made me in recent months much more happy to bare process raw, to open it out. I think collaboration, both at the creative or editing stage, allows you to be open to new ideas that come along from unpredictable directions, new ideas that can change the poem radically for the better.
I also hope that some of the poems I’ve been editing that originated prior to the residency will eventually go into my manuscript and I will be able to submit them to various magazines or perform them at events. At the poetry school Spring Term launch event on the 9th of January I’ll read some of these recent poems plus any of the four new poems that have made the cut.
Finally, the fourth poem I produced is not really one I want to air just yet. I wrote it the morning after I visited my grandfather’s grave in a woodland burial ground near Saxmundham. I actually started the piece by writing from a quotation from Sinbad the Sailor (in the 1001 nights) which has been pasted on my computer desktop for some weeks (back when I put it there, I was very interested in the Sinbad stories). I didn’t think much of the fact, on starting the poem, that this quote has the word grave in it until about half way through when I realised that this text was somehow joining together various recent thoughts and impressions – the woods, the grave, Suffolk, my grandfather and his difficult family relationships, my childhood memories of Suffolk, Sinbad, and the mad logic of the quote itself. I was not allowed to attend my grandfather’s burial in Saxmundham and the emotional knot of that fact, I think, may have been present in the deeper, unacknowledged part of my writing brain. Here is Sinbad: “Three things are better than [an?]other three; the day of death is better than the day of birth, a live dog is better than a dead lion and the grave is better than want.” The poem is entitled ‘The third thing’. I hope you’ll get to read it or hear in its finished form and I won’t have to throw it away.