‘Mixed Borders: Poets in Residence in London Gardens‘, a Poetry School Summer workshop with London Parks and Gardens Trust, will see poets paired up with allotments, garden squares and hidden spaces to propagate their own green and leafy poetry ideas. We had a chat with Sarah Hesketh, poet and Event Manager for London Open Garden Squares, about what students can expect on their Mixed Borders residencies…
Hi Sarah – could you tell us about ‘Mixed Borders: Poets in Residence…’ and how the collaboration with London Parks and Gardens Trust came about?
SH: When I’m not being a poet I work as a freelance events manager. Last September, when I started working for the London Parks and Gardens Trust on Open Garden Squares Weekend, the first thing I could see was the huge potential for more arts activities taking place on the Weekend, and of course my first thought was more poetry!
Poets are great interpreters of space, and poetry and nature have long gone hand in hand, so it seemed like the ideal collaboration. At the Trust, we had already decided to work with student guides across London to develop our programme of guided walks over the Weekend, so we thought we’d see if we could repeat the model for poetry. And of course, from a personal point of view, it’s a great way for me to unite my poetic and my working lives!
What do you hope that poets who take part in the residencies will gain from the experience?
SH: Well firstly, we hope that they are inspired to write some great poetry! This course is really an opportunity for poets to create new work. We hope that the poets will be able to use the history, the planting, the physical environment of the garden (and its surrounding community) as jumping off points for the production of great writing. Many of the gardens that are hosting poets aren’t normally open to the public, so getting a chance to work out of one of these spaces will be a real privilege. Being a poet in residence also requires a very varied set of skills, so we’re hoping that these poets will gain useful pointers that will help them in future residency applications and opportunities.
Could you tell us about your own experiences as a poet in resident? I know that one of your residencies with Age Concern inspired your second collection The Hard Word Box…
SH: Being a poet in residence can be a very complex experience. Poetry is a largely solitary activity, during which the poet is usually in charge. When you become a poet in residence, you have to think much more carefully about your audience, about how you present your work; to some extent you’re a trespasser in someone else’s environment, and you have to respect and think about other people’s opinions and ideas much more. Being asked to interpret and communicate a particular space or set of experiences is a great challenge, and I love how writing out of a residency forces me to write outside of myself. It can be a great exercise in empathy, it also takes the pressure off the poet to come up with lots of new ideas themselves!
My residency with Age Concern was a particularly complex residency, because I was working with people with dementia. A couple of people who I worked with died during the residency period. That tends not to happen in most residencies. Dementia can also be a very difficult thing to write about. But actually I could have written about three books because there was so much interesting material. And in some ways it was much more satisfying to write a book that I thought might have some very clear political or social purpose to it. As a poet in residence you become a translator – be it of objects, ideas, people or places, and I like that heightened imperative to communicate.
For your commission with The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, you wrote a poem in response to meeting Holocaust survivor Eve Kugler. What was it like writing Eve’s experiences into poetry?
SH: As with the Age Concern project, I could have written much more than the time of the commission allowed. Writing about Eve, I was effectively asked to write about a whole human life. Eve’s story of her journey from Germany to America was quite complex anyway, and so reducing that to ten short poems was a huge challenge. Again, I felt a special responsibility to create something that Eve would like and be proud of – after all, she had been generous enough to give up the intimate details of her life to me. It was a privilege to be placed in that position of trust, but also a great pressure as well.
There’s a common sense of using poetry as a way of preserving memories in both your poem in response to Eve’s story and The Hard Word Box. Is preservation an important function of poetry?
SH: I don’t think it’s a necessary function, but I do think poetry is a very interesting format for life writing.
There seems to me to be something very useful in poetic form – the gaps, the sudden jumps that we are asked to make in metaphor, the ability to pack a word with several layers of meaning, that is nicely akin to how memory operates, and how it functions as a part of the self. My commission from the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust was intended quite clearly as an act of remembrance or preservation. By contrast, when I first started with Age Concern I thought I would be writing a lot about who these people with dementia had once been, what had they done in the past. But in fact, I realised much more urgent was the need to communicate who these people were now, for me to look backwards wasn’t really of much use to them, and what they were experiencing now was actually far more interesting.
As part of your work at London Open Garden Squares, has exploring the private and tucked-away gardens of London inspired your writing? Should we expect a leafy poetry collection sometime soon?
SH: I wish! Since starting working on the event I have been lucky enough to visit some amazing spaces. The Red House (William Morris’ house in Bexleyheath), Cleveland Square (a beautiful traditional garden square) and the Alara permaculture garden along the train lines by King’s Cross, have all been really inspirational. Sadly, I’m going to be quite busy during Open Garden Squares Weekend itself, so I’m going to miss seeing most of the gardens!
Do you have a favourite outdoor space in the city?
SH: I’m a huge fan of the Ladies’ Pond in Hampstead, and the meadow next to it. I’m a regular swimmer there in the summer. I’m also a big fan of Postman’s Park. It’s one of the hidden gems of the City, and it holds the Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice, a monument that commemorates ordinary people who died whilst saving the lives of others. If I was going to be a poet in residence on this project, I think I’d like to be there.
How long have you been teaching Creative Writing, and what do you enjoy most about it?
SH: I started teaching Creative Writing for the Open University in 2007. I’ve taught a huge variety of students since then, of all ages and levels of experience. The thing I always enjoy the most is seeing people discover a talent they never thought they had. Students are usually terrified of the poetry unit when they first start, but I usually have a couple of real converts every year who absolutely fall in love with it. Seeing the progress that people can make simply by applying themselves to something for a sustained period is always really gratifying as well.
What else are you working on at the moment?
SH: The Hard Word Box came out in December, and that’s been followed by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and a few other smaller commissions. I’m just finishing up the editing on an anthology of poems about age and ageing for The Emma Press that’s due out later this year. There are some fantastic poems in it and I’m really excited by what we’ve put together. After that, well, I’ve got a few ideas, but I’m keeping them close my chest for now.
If you’d like to take part in your own poetry residency in a London garden, contact Julia Bird to register your interest at [email protected] For more information, visit our website or call our offices on 0207 582 1679.
Sarah Hesketh was brought up in Pendle, East Lancashire. Her first full collection of poetry Napoleon’s Travelling Bookshelf was published in 2009 by Penned in the Margins. In 2013 she was poet in residence with Age Concern working with elderly people with dementia, and in 2014 she published The Hard Word Box (Penned in the Margins, 2014), a collection of poems and interviews inspired by this experience. In 2015, she was commissioned by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust to produce Grains of Light, a sequence of poems based around the story of Holocaust survivor Eve Kugler.
Sarah currently lives in London and works part time as the Events Manager for London Open Garden Squares as well as teaching creative writing for the Open University.
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