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Keep On: an Interview with Clare Shaw

Starting on Thursday 11 June in Manchester, ‘Keep On’ will help poets at any level who are in need of a little fuel and maintenance to keep writing. We had a chat with tutor Clare Shaw about the upcoming course, and her thoughts on what to do when the poems aren’t coming …

Hi Clare! Tell us a little about your Manchester Summer course, ‘Keep On’: what can we expect?

Claire: Take it as a given that you can expect a whole heap of energy and enthusiasm. The course is based on the reality that, however passionate you are about poetry, there are times when it’s hard to keep going. Maybe you’ve just finished a course, a collection; left group; got a new job; maybe you’re just tired or you’re not quite sure where you’re heading; you’ve faced a string of rejections or unwelcome criticism; you’re worn out with the same way of writing …. there are times we all need the structured input of a group.

So you can also expect – tonnes of practical exercises, with a focus not only on writing, but also on drafting, editing, submitting; a look outside the world of poetry to prose, visual art and music; bags of reading and discussion; and the mutual sharing of strategies, information, feedback, confectionary and support. Oh, and homework.

You ran your first course with us last term, ‘Relight Your Fire’ – how was it? What were the best bits?

Claire: The course was wonderful, obviously! As with any course, people came with a whole range of stories and needs. The course was designed to remind people of the power of the word, and particularly their own voices …. highlights included listening to the range of poetry that people brought with them every week just because they loved it; and wanted other people to read it. And most of all, the highlight was hearing, one-by-one, every member of the group share their own work. In fact, a small group of us continued into National Poetry Writing Month; and without exception, wrote a poem a day. Where there were blank pages, there are now several hundred new poems! I couldn’t have hoped for a better outcome.

Do you often struggle with writer’s block, or with motivation to write?

Claire: Oh yes. All the time. Time’s the issue. Or at last I tell myself it is. I don’t have the time. Time, time, time. And maybe even more importantly, the feeling that what I write isn’t good enough – and sometimes, of course, it’s not.

You’re known for being a dynamic reader of your poems, and when I was reading Head On, I felt that your love of language made me want to say the poems out loud just to hear how they sounded – it feels like your poems want to be spoken. With that in mind, do you think that there’s a difference between performance poetry, spoken word poetry, and poems written for the page?

Claire: Thank you! That’s an enormous compliment. I always read my poems out loud, and I’d recommend writers – any writers – to read their work out loud. Most language is made to be spoken. That’s often the point of it.

Poetry is an art, and all we have to work with is words. So we use them to the full. Different poets make different use of the elements of language – rhythm, music, space, lay out, the visual elements of space, texture, lay out; punctuation, meaning, cultural and personal association, the interplay between all those elements. I have a deep appreciation for how hard we work as poets within the restrictions of that format, and how much we squeeze out of the building blocks of word and page. I revel in the texture and echo of words; I love their dance. There’s something about the physicality of the spoken word that delights me. For me it feels like the meeting place of human and landscape; a sort of landscape of mouth and air and page. I enjoy the physicality of my own language; and I’m drawn to poems that foreground the dance and swoop of conversation, as well as the music of form and rhythm; alongside meaning and content. But I love other elements of poetry too; and how they meet with sound. I’m increasingly interested by the visual aspects of poetry; and have learnt recently from the examples of concrete poetry and word art we shared in Re-light your Fire and NaPoWriMo.

Foregrounding sound is a choice which is open to any writer – whether prose or poetry. There’s also the choice to foreground other elements; and where that happens, the poem seems clearly to belong on the page. Some poems exist in the performance; just as dialogue belongs in the film and not in the scripts. I say this without attaching any value to either form. I write for the page but I love to perform. I’m impatient with what can seem like a bloody-minded refusal of each side to engage with the other. I’m most interested in poets who seem to belong to neither or both genres: Kei Miller, Adrian Mitchell, Rita Ann Higgins, Liz Lochead and more locally, the poet, playwright, stand-up comic and general genius Jackie Hagan.

Jackie will be guest-tutoring on “Keep On”: she’s perfect for the course, not just because she has a total disregard for the restrictions of genre, but also because she’s a ball of energy and passion; and an absolute mistress of the vexed and crucial art of keeping on going.

Alongside your career as a poet, you also work extensively to improve mental health services in the UK – could you tell us more about that?

Claire: I spent most of my twenties on Liverpool psychiatric wards and units. It was grim. Conditions were terrible, staff were often burnt out, disengaged or hostile. Those who weren’t, were nonetheless generally stymied by a medical model of mental illness which stripped the personal and social meaning from our distress and reduced it to an issue of biology, medication and management.

Life had been difficult; I was distressed when I entered the system; what I experienced there made it worse. When I see things that are wrong, I want to change them. I entered into campaigning as a matter of necessity. It’s a passion for me. I’ve been involved in the service-user movement since I started using services; and for the last fifteen years I’ve worked as a trainer delivering courses on issues like self-injury. I also work as a researcher – I recently published the first report on peer support in medium secure services, for example. And of course, I write.

Do you find that working as a poet and as a mental health worker overlap? Is it a source of poetic inspiration for you, or do you have to work to bring the two worlds together?

Claire: Both careers are driven by the same motivation. One of the reasons I ended up in mental health services is because I didn’t have the language for what I felt and what I needed. I tried to manage on my own; and I communicated my feelings and needs through my behaviour – through self-injury. Finding the right language has been a crucial part of my “recovery”. Mental health calls for a language of nuance and extremity; which can hold intense, complex and sometimes contradictory emotion and experience. Poetry is where I found this language.

There’s a political impetus here as well. There’s nothing more political or urgent than how we give shape to our feelings, our experiences; and how we understand and respond to each other’s struggles and sufferings. Psychiatry gives a language of medicine and illness to distress; it tells us that we suffer because our brain chemistries are disrupted. The impact of social causes – like poverty, injustice, social exclusion – are sidelined or completely disregarded. There is no definitive evidence for the biological basis of mental illness. That poverty, isolation, abuse and violence cause distress is an irrefutable fact. I’m wedded to the task of helping people to give their experiences and feelings a more meaningful shape than illness or disorder; I think art, literature and poetry offer us more powerful possibilities.

When I suggest to staff that there are more helpful ways of understanding each other than the diagnostic labels we currently use, I’m often told “But it’s only words”. Hmmph. There are few more incendiary phrases for a writer to hear. That’s one of the reasons I love poetry – poets understand and respect the power of each individual word. Words make a huge difference to us individually, and to the societies we form.

Poetry tends away from individualising, blaming, criminalising – and towards empathy and compassion. Poetry gives us a tangible opportunity to walk in each other’s shoes: as Jane Hirshfield (2015) puts it, it offers “a way of recognizing that your own life and the lives of others are not in any way separable …. the experience of the quiet engagement with another person’s recorded experience”. No wonder that poetry is so often allied to the radical and the marginalised; a powerful yet nuanced vehicle for individual healing and progressive social change. I’m very proud to be a poet. It is going to be a very necessary art over the next five years.

Finally – what’s your top tip for a poet in the grips of writer’s block?

Claire: Forgive yourself. Just because you’ve not written for two years doesn’t mean it won’t come back and you can’t do it anymore. It will. You can. Be realistic.

You don’t have to write for hours a day for it to count. Fifteen minutes is better than no minutes. A writer who isn’t writing is, by definition, not a writer.

Know when it’s time to give up: when that piece you’re working on is going nowhere. Don’t wear yourself out with trying when it’s clearly not going to happen. Take a break. Catch up on sleep. Do some housework. Create time for writing tomorrow.

Do the work you’re capable of. Catch with reviews. Do some editing. Help your friend with her collection. Build up your stock of resources.

Give yourself the best chance you’ve got. Buy good paper, a good pen. Drink coffee if you have to. Stop stressing. There are many more important things to worry about.

Do the things you know will motivate you. Go to a reading. Read some bloody good books. Join a group. Make it pleasant.

Find an audience. Even if it’s an audience of one.

Get over yourself. Some people are better than you. Thank god. It means you’ve always got something good to read.

Forgive yourself for writing crap. If you didn’t write crap sometimes, you wouldn’t write at all. The crap is important.

Create a simple but real expectation that writing has a place in your life.

Now write! Bloody write!

‘Keep On’ with Clare will start on Thursday, 11 June at Friends’ Meeting House in Manchester. To book, visit our website or call us at the office on 0207 582 1679.

Clare Shaw was born in 1972 in Burnley, the youngest of six children, and moved to Liverpool at the age of 18 to study politics. Her years in the city were marked by frequent admissions to psychiatric wards, which motivated her to become involved in working to improve mental health services. In her work, postgraduate study, publications and activism, she has become a recognised voice on women’s mental health issues. Clare now lives in West Yorkshire, and continues to work with services across the UK and beyond. She is also a regular tutor with the Arvon Foundation - who describe her as "one of Britain’s most dynamic and powerful young poets” - and will soon be taking up a position as Royal Literary Fellow at Huddersfield University. She has published two collections with Bloodaxe, Straight Ahead (2006), which was shortlisted for the Glen Dimplex New Writers’ Award for Poetry, and attracted a Forward Prize Highly Commended for Best Single Poem, and Head On (2012).


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