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Interview with the Primers Volume One poets: Lucy Ingrams, Katie Griffiths, Geraldine Clarkson and Maureen Cullen

“If you’re hesitating between sending poems to Primers or another competition, send your very best to Primers. You won’t regret it!” – Geraldine Clarkson, Primers Volume One Poet.

In 2015, The Poetry School and Nine Arches Press launched Primers, a nationwide scheme to find exciting new voices in poetry. The four selected poets – Geraldine Clarkson, Lucy Ingrams, Maureen Cullen and Katie Griffiths – received dedicated mentoring and editing support, followed by publication in Primers Volume One, and a programme of promotional readings. This year we’re doing it all again

With the deadline just around the corner – 4th September – we spoke to the four winners of the first Primers scheme about finding out they’d been chosen, being mentored, editing, publication and going ‘on tour’.

First things first, how did it feel to be chosen as one of the four Primers poets?


Geraldine: It was a huge delight and privilege. The shortlisted poems I’d seen online were of such astounding quality that I didn’t dare open Julia Bird’s email at first as I was expecting the news that I hadn’t been successful! I’m a great fan of what The Poetry School does and also of the exciting work which Nine Arches Press produces, so being part of this inaugural Primers venture felt very exciting indeed.

Lucy: A huge surprise. You get so used to sending things off and not hearing back – it hadn’t occurred to me that this time would be any different. When I was shortlisted, I felt amply delighted; then to hear I’d got all the way through… I thought at first that there may have been a mistake?

Katie: Humbling, scary and thrilling. I’d started taking my poetry writing seriously again a few years ago, and Primers was a vindication of hard work, not letting myself off the hook and seeking out inspiring teachers – Pascale Petit, Moniza Alvi, Malika Booker, Catherine Smith and Myra Schneider amongst them.

Maureen: I was delighted. I didn’t expect it. I’d entered in the same way as I enter all competitions, as a way of keeping me focused on work and deadlines. Also, I really liked the idea of supporting this worthwhile project.

Throughout the early part of the programme, you received mentoring from the poet (and Poetry School super-tutor) Kathryn Maris. How was that?  


Katie: I was excited at the prospect, as I love Kathryn’s poetry. Her mentoring was wholly supportive and tooth-comb precise. I feel I’ve learned a huge amount from her intellectual acuity as well as her emotional sensitivity. She picked me up on a couple of tics I’d been blind to, and pointed me towards other poets I could more closely study, notably Alice Oswald for her musicality and deft leaps in syntax.

Lucy: Kathryn’s responses and suggestions were razor-precise and acute, as well as generous: she brought such close attention to the poems, and it was extraordinary to feel one’s work met and held in a mind that knows so much poetry.

Maureen: I didn’t meet Kathryn until later because of my own mobility issues but she gave me very useful written feedback.

Geraldine: It was fantastic to work with Kathryn, and to have the benefit of her awesome expertise and intuition. She was a great mentor, giving wise advice and guidance. Her insights and generous responses to my doubts and queries have helped me to better understand my own work.

The final book – Primers Volume One – was edited by Nine Arches Press editor Jane Commane. Was this the first time you’d worked with an editor on your poems? What difference did it make? 


Lucy: Jane has a brilliantly light, deft touch – every question she asks is completely to the point and led me to look and think again in a way that really helped the poems achieve more. I hadn’t worked before with a poetry book editor (of course) and felt extremely lucky to have an experience that was both so creative and so professional.

Geraldine: I’d had a lot of poems published in anthologies but hadn’t worked on such a substantial group of poems for a commercial publication, and I found it a very affirming and consolidating experience. Jane identified the ‘story’ the poems would tell together and also the dynamic between all of our poems. She is a very insightful and sensitive editor. The final book was stunningly beautiful – those lovely yellow covers! – complete with introductions and dazzling endpapers—  it felt like a real labour of love.

Maureen: No, it wasn’t the first time. I had the privilege to work with Anne McDonnell of Pewter Rose Press a couple of years ago when I was part of an anthology, ‘Still Me’. Working with Jane was also a privilege and a joy. She has a great eye. The changes she suggested made the poems stronger and made me think again about why I’d taken one approach over another.

Katie: First time with a real live book editor, yes. Jane is amazingly perceptive.  We were soon able to get to the nub of what my section of Primers should consist of. She can see exactly what a poem’s glory can be, and what tiny points might be standing in the way. She was like the best kind of fly-swatter not letting anything land inappropriately.

After the book publication, the four of you read in Birmingham, at Wenlock Poetry Festival, at the LRB bookshop…What has it been like going ‘on tour’?


Geraldine: This was a central part of the Primers experience for me. Such a great group of poets to work with, and we very quickly bonded. With each ‘tour’ reading, the synergy and chemistry between our selections became more and more apparent—a real tribute to the skilful choices and editorial decisions of Kathryn and Jane, I think!

Katie: Short of the actual tour bus with kettle and kitchenette, it was fun and educational to experience different venues. As well as the pleasure of presenting my own poems, each time I heard my three colleagues read, I enjoyed and respected their work more.

Maureen: I’ve found that difficult. I’m not a natural performer and prefer never to be centre stage. But the events were well organised and my colleagues were wonderfully supportive.

Lucy: Giving readings is much more fun as a group – and for me personally, who can get nervous, it was really helpful. An atmosphere of mutual trust and playfulness quickly sprang up between us, putting us each more at ease. An important ingredient of the trust, I think, was that we were so kindly and carefully introduced at each event: Jane, Kathryn, and Julia, took enormous trouble to present us positively and equally to every audience.

I’ve heard you’ve taken to calling yourselves ‘the Primers sisters’ – has this turned out to be something of a bonding experience too? 


Maureen: Yes, I’ve made friends with three amazing poets whom I otherwise would never have met.

Lucy: Since the competition entries are judged anonymously, it did feel special that we were four women finalists. That we bonded at once seemed to express the integrity of the scheme and its execution – the joint vision of Jane and Kathryn.

Geraldine: Definitely, and I hope that we will keep in touch and also continue to do Primers Sisters / Good Ship Primers readings beyond this Primers 1 year too!

Katie: Absolutely. I love that our approach is so different and yet Fate – in the shape of Jane, Kathryn, the Poetry School and Nine Arches – has brought us together. I’ll now always want to champion Lucy, Maureen and Geraldine. (Where’s that megaphone…)

Do you feel that your poetry has changed over the course of Primers? Where are you now compared with last year?  


Geraldine: Since Primers I’ve had the good fortune to publish a chapbook and a pamphlet – so I feel like I am in a very different place! Although it has turned out to be a year of editing / collating / publishing / performing, rather than one of writing new poems, I feel that the experience of Primers, and the confidence which came from producing and refining a body of work, and taking it on tour, have given me a clearer awareness of my work and how to proceed. Jane and Kathryn’s input and advice, and the friendship of Maureen, Lucy, and Katie, have been invaluable.

Maureen: I feel more confident about my choices when writing and I have a clearer idea of where I need to develop and what I enjoy writing most.

Lucy: Exposing your work more – both at readings and in print – does give you a stronger sense of what goes over / what doesn’t, and perhaps some insights into how and why? The recognition Primers brings also generates confidence in others… friends and family, for example, seem a little less shy of my weird habit of writing poetry!

Katie: Not sure my poetry has changed (yet!) but certainly my attitude has. On the one hand I’m more nervous when my pen is poised over a draft because of expectations, on the other I’ve greater confidence in voice, direction and themes I’d like to explore. I’ve been preparing another set of poems for firing off soon.

Were there any unexpected benefits to Primers?

Maureen: Yes, it took me out of my comfort zone and broadened my expectations of what I can achieve.

Katie: Yes. To readers, it may not appear that my Primers poems take major risks, but, from my own perspective, I crept way out on a limb. Publication has meant this effort was warranted.  It’s been a reminder that courage is fundamental to all art.

Geraldine: The feeling of being supported and nurtured by the scheme. The friendships which are still developing. The numerous new contacts made via the networking and promotion of @poetryschool and @NineArchesPress. Joining Twitter!  Discovering @WaterstonesBham —one of our reading venues—as a new and lively hub of poetry not too far from me …Katie’s colander prop at our LRB reading was a surprise, too, and made me think in a whole different way about props at poetry readings! 🙂

Lucy: I hadn’t expected to have such a rich experience. To have met and worked closely with people I didn’t know at all this time last year … to have been read and engaged with so carefully and nurturingly by the Poetry School, by Nine Arches Press and by poetry audiences in Wenlock, Birmingham, London and Oxford has been an undreamed-of privilege.

Finally, what advice would you give to poets thinking about applying for Primers this year? 


Maureen: It’s too good an opportunity to miss. Get involved. Apply.

Geraldine: If you’re hesitating between sending poems to Primers or another competition, send your very best to Primers. You won’t regret it!

Katie: To ponder carefully about their initial selection –  then press send!  It’s a fabulous opportunity and worth trying for.

Lucy: The rules may seem daunting to fulfil at first (six, and ultimately fifteen unpublished poems) but you can be confident that the judges reading your work are far-sighted and imaginative … that your voice will be heard over and above the weaknesses or strengths of individual poems.  The rewards of succeeding are well worth trying for. ‘Nothing ventured…’: a year ago I’d never have guessed this luck lay in store.

To apply for Primers Volume Two, and receive mentoring from Jacob Sam-La Rose, editorial support from Jane Commane, publication with Nine Arches Press, and a programme of promotional readings, click here


Lucy Ingrams has had poems in various poetry magazines, most recently Poetry Ireland Review and Agenda. She won the Manchester poetry prize in 2015 and the Magma poetry competition in 2016.

Maureen Cullen wrote poetry as a teenager, returning to it after a career in social work, inspired by her Open University tutor. She has since obtained a Masters in Creative Writing from Lancaster University (Distinction) where she studied poetry and short stories.

Geraldine Clarkson’s poems have appeared widely in magazines and anthologies, most recently in Magma and Under the Radar, and The Poet’s Quest for God (Eyewear Books), and her poems were broadcast on BBC Radio 3 during the Proms Extra Late series in summer 2016. In June 2016, she brought out a chapbook, Declare, with Shearsman Books, and she has a pamphlet coming out in the Laureate’s Choice series in autumn 2016.

Katie Griffiths grew up in Ottawa, Canada – the daughter of Northern Irish parents. She returned to the UK for university and subsequently worked at Radio Times, as volunteers co-ordinator for refugees of the war in the former Yugoslavia, and as teacher at a further education college. Her collection My Shrink is Pregnant was joint runner-up in the 2014 Poetry School/Pighog Poetry Pamphlet Competition. She is singer-songwriter in the band A Woman in Goggles, under which name she also blogs.

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