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On Writing Residencies

Being a public writer

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

Increasingly, my eye alights on a peculiar kind of job advert. These ads tend to have a headline that uses some variant of ‘Writer Wanted’, and the lines that follow can sound a little like a lonely-hearts column:

Public institution seeks writer for short-term relationship of mutual benefit. Said writer must be willing to get to know the institution on an intimate level, but also be happy to let others in. Good listening skills essential. Apply with manifesto.

I’m paraphrasing, of course, but it’s these kinds of qualities that are often required for the job in question: writer-in-residence, or poet-in-residence if your potential ‘soulmate’ is looking for someone who writes in a specific form. One of the many joys of writing residencies is that no two are the same. That can make it tricky to generalise, but, working backwards, there are some common factors:

1. The ‘residence’ bit
You’ll be asked to inhabit a space. This could be physical inhabiting. You’ll put yourself somewhere, ‘reside’ in a gallery, a cowshed, a castle, a department store, or an outside space: a beach, a roundabout, a forest. It might be a conceptual space that you never physically visit: think digital archival project, a proposed new bypass. It could be a communal ‘space’ that sees you attach yourself to a group (a few years ago, I saw the British bobsleigh team were looking for a writer-in-residence; concerns about what ‘joining in’ might mean made me hesitate over that one). In these manifestations of residing, think of yourself as a hermit crab whose donned shell is a place, an idea, a group of people. Think of yourself inside, looking out.

2. The ‘in’ bit:
How long will you be ‘there’? It might be for a single day, or one day a week for a month, a solid fortnight, six months. And will you be paid? Maybe. Let’s hope so.

3. The ‘writer’ bit
You’ll be expected to write something in response to your in-residence experience. It could be research notes for a novel, a chapter of a memoir, a sequence of poems, a short story, a script, a personal essay, an alternative history, an experimental guidebook, a commentary on the act of inhabiting. Or some new form you only discover by virtue of the residency, one that you don’t yet know is waiting for you.

The hermit crab metaphor is only useful up to a point because you’re unlikely to be as lonely as a hermit. There’s a good chance the role will have you working with the public, because writers-in-residence are often seen as a means to ‘open up’ an institution, an archive, a national sporting team, to those who might not otherwise know of them or feel a sense of ownership. Your workshop might draw people who have never set foot inside the cowshed before. Their voices might become part of your work, too.

And at the end, when you leave your shell behind? You’ll very likely share what you’ve written — and you’ll want to, because chances are this will be an exciting time for you, creatively. It will push you in new directions. So you’ll give a public reading of the work produced during the residency, or it’ll go on the gallery’s website, in the castle’s display material, on a plaque on the roundabout, or stencilled on the bobsled. Who knows? Hopefully you will, because it’s a good idea to be clear on expectations at the outset, including who owns the rights to the material.

I didn’t apply to join the bobsleigh team as a writer-in-residence. My first such gig was in a ceramics gallery — less physically dangerous, perhaps, but I still needed public liability insurance in case of breakages. The idea was to explore the life and work of Michael Cardew, a twentieth-century potter whose work forms a significant part of the ceramics collection held by Aberystwyth University. The project’s aim was to promote the collection, and to give people a sense of cultural ownership — to take the pots out of the display cases and put them back into people’s hands, literally as well as figuratively (hence the insurance).

My residency was for three months and my remit was to run writing workshops in the gallery itself, and write a pamphlet of poems in response to the project. There was no more guidance to the writing than that ‘in response to’. An expansive brief, which meant the possibilities were endless and exciting — I was asked to play, experiment, but within the perimeters of a larger idea: a fruitful form of tension.

The workshops were fun, thought-provoking and unpredictable, and so, I feel, were the poems I wrote in response. We talked about favourite meals, the communal experience of sharing food with others, and wrote recipe-inspired poems about what we’d like to serve on the potter’s beautiful dishes. We got hold of his plates, mugs, bowls, jugs and explored their materiality, thought about the act of making, and considered ourselves makers, too — makers of writing. We asked, are poems made to be used too? ‘In response’ to these discussions my poems questioned my own usefulness as a poet, what purpose poems are ‘made for’, and whether that even matters: questions I hadn’t asked before this point. And I found a new language with which to ask, borrowing technical pottery terms to interrogate Cardew’s approach to art, and my own.

At the end of the residency, I invited my workshop group to choose their favourite poems from those they’d written during our time with the pots, and we gave a public reading in the gallery, which in turn brought more people to listen, and to look at what was there. My months of ‘residing’ unlocked something in the space, and in my own work too: the best kind of residency.

And now I’m halfway through my second one and it’s a different story altogether.

Earlier this year I was at a beautiful former chapel in the centre of Cardiff. The building has recently been bought by the Catholic church and, with the help of a large Heritage Lottery grant, converted into a fantastic events space called Cornerstone. I had just finished reading at a poetry festival held there – Cardiff’s first – and was tracking down a much-needed cup of tea when someone called after me, ‘You’re not rushing off, are you?’ He was waving a scrawled list of events that were due to take place at Cornerstone in the coming year, including an amateur production of the musical Godspell and a gala dinner to celebrate Epiphany. These events were to be ‘covered’ by Cornerstone’s first poet-in-residence, and did I want to be that poet? After the quickest job interview I’ve ever had, which took place on the stairs while I finished my tea, I said yes.

In no small part this was due to the person ‘interviewing’ me: Christian Brown, poetry aficionado and project manager for the chapel’s redevelopment. He was full of enthusiasm for the role of poetry in Cornerstone’s new life, believing it could offer a special record of the year’s events, diverse as they were. As poet-in-residence it was my job to capture life at Cornerstone – a bustling place with a rich history of different forms of worship – in five poems, written over the course of twelve months. I got to work.

First up, dinner cooked by a Michelin-starred chef: sometimes – rarely – poetry does pay. Through the haze of some excellent wine I thought about friendship, and breaking bread — a bridge from my previous residency, perhaps. Next, a breakfast meeting, held in Cornerstone’s café, for the charity Music in Hospitals, which fundraises to take musicians and singers to care homes, hospices, and hospitals. Over a bacon bap I learnt of what music can do for people who are suffering.

I was fizzing with ideas. With every event on Christian’s list, Cornerstone was giving me an opportunity to see the world from a different vantage point, and at each one there was Christian himself. I was pleased with the poems that were taking shape and could see a theme emerging: miracles. Not inappropriate for a building that now has strong Catholic connections. There was the miracle of the elderly residents of a care home dancing to jazz after not moving for weeks. The miracle of kindness Christian offered whenever I saw him. The miraculous properties he assigned to poetry.

But mid-way through, everything changed. Christian died suddenly.

He didn’t get a chance to see the work I’ve produced so far, that he commissioned, and that I have so enjoyed writing. I’ve still got half his list to work through, but my writing has changed to accommodate what’s happened, and in doing so revealed a new kind of residing which doesn’t appear in the lonely-hearts style job ads for these roles. I’m still the building’s poet-in-residence, inhabiting its bricks and mortar, inhabiting the events that take place there, but I’m residing in loss now — my own and that of Cornerstone, too.

Katherine Stansfield is a novelist and poet. Her latest book, The Magpie Tree, is a historical crime novel set in Cornwall in 1844, the sequel to Falling Creatures. Katharine teaches for a number of universities.

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