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Unlocking Creativity – in conversation with Cheryl Moskowitz

Lockdown means confinement, and that word brings up many negative associations with imprisonment, loss of freedom and so on. For me however the experience of lockdown this past year has been more akin to the kind of confinement I associate with a pregnancy, a spiritual retreat or even, I imagine, living in a hermitage. And for that, it has been an unexpectedly creative, revelatory and productive time.

I am aware of course that it goes against the grain (so to speak!) to say so and there must be certain shame in suggesting that this past year of the pandemic has been anything like a positive one but there have certainly been gains, plenty of good that has been generated, including writing, that would not have happened without it.

I work as a freelance writer and educator and, even in my former incarnations as an actor and therapist, I have been self-employed all my working life. The importance of grabbing opportunities when they are there and having to initiate my own projects is not unfamiliar territory.

The beginning of the first lockdown was bittersweet. My poem ‘Hotel Grief’ had just been commended in the 2019 National Poetry Competition. The award ceremony was to have been a swish affair with wine and canapés in central London but went ahead as an online ceremony instead. A year ago, the staging of virtual gatherings like this was still uncharted territory. Judith Palmer at the Poetry Society was determined to make it work and enlisted the help of my husband Alastair who is primarily a musician but always up for a technical challenge. Far from being a disappointment the event was wonderful and a huge learning curve for all concerned – for a celebration of poetry to happen with such joy and aplomb, at this important juncture, made all things feel possible.

Alastair and I also had an All Saints Session (#14) coming up which was due to be performed live in our usual setting, the magnificent 15th century All Saints Church in Edmonton, North London.

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We had our guests booked, poet Lisa Kelly, and cellist Kate Shortt, and had already begun to collaborate on material. The event was billed for early April but by then the country was on full lockdown, public spaces, including churches, were closed and it was clear that physical performance couldn’t happen as planned – if we were going to do it at all, we had to find another way.

Lisa and I were already generating written material in a distanced way – we had decided to send each other, in the post, three musings on ‘mothers and loss’. We wrote responses and mailed these and repeated the process one more time.  Alastair and Kate managed to have one physical rehearsal before lockdown and Alastair set about gathering field recordings to capture some of the early sounds and sense of being in lockdown, early morning bird song, quiet streets, sound of being indoors, Thursday night applause for the carers. With our iphone we filmed the daily walk we did from home to Alexandra Place and sent this footage to our filmmaker son, George, in New York who added footage of his own and made a film.

We got on our bikes and delivered hand-held digital recorders to Lisa and Kate’s doorsteps so they could record their parts separately and send back the recordings. We did the same at home. Alastair managed to weave everything together ready for a live broadcast on April 9th. I say ‘ready’, we were still uploading everything minutes before the broadcast went live but both Alastair and I had been missing theatre dreadfully, so this gave us the rush we needed!

‘Milk Opera’, our 14th All Saints Session had more people attending than we’d had at all of our previous All Saints Sessions put together. You can see and hear the piece here:

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All Saints Session #15 was live-streamed from our living-room for the Poetry in Aldeburgh in November and this month, on March 27 at 8pm All Saints #16, recorded live at the British Schools Museum in Hitchin, will be broadcast. Both these Sessions involve poet and fellow Magma editor Isabelle Baafi, another of my lockdown gains and new poetry friend! Isabelle is also my guest poet at the ATG pamphlet launch, 3pm on March 28th.

Almost all the paid work I had scheduled for last Spring involved school visits which were either cancelled or postponed. I’d been full of plans for those visits, many of them to special schools in Kent. When schools closed in March 2020 there was much concern raised in the news about what the effects would be on vulnerable ‘at risk’ children. It seemed that despite schools remaining open for children of key workers and those most in need, many places were not being taken up. This made me anxious and prompted me to initiate conversations where I could, at a safe distance outside on the pavement or in school playgrounds, with children, teachers and parents to find out how they were coping and what were their hopes for the future. I wrote poems in response and this became The Corona Collection a collection written and printed in record time, distributed for free to children and schools around the country last June.

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Based on The Corona Collection I gave presentations, ran in-person and online workshops including one in Pittsburgh and one in Hong Kong. I began to work with other organisations including the Poetry Society and the Stephen Spender Foundation on initiatives to support the mental health and well-being of young people in and out of school through the pandemic. I ran training sessions for Artis and wrote resources for BUPA in conjunction with the National Literacy Trust and MIND.

For a time, it seemed, I’d never been busier. This had begun as self-tasked busyness, out of an initial concern for children and their adults, but also possibly my way of warding off anxiety for myself and my own family, and assuming some measure of control amidst all the uncertainty.

I was supposed to have been in New York twice last year, in May and in October – two of my adult children live there and I wanted to see them and also take a few weeks to ‘retreat’ myself and spend an uninterrupted period of time writing. New York may be the city that never sleeps but it is also a place where no one has a particular ‘call’ on my time. Travel wasn’t happening either in May, or in October when George, Alastair and I were to have been on a residency at Bethany Arts Center, Ossining, NY. We’d been granted time to produce a piece involving poetry, film and music on the on the theme of ‘Isolation, Entrapment and Emergence’. Because of COVID restrictions what should have been a 3-week residency at BAC using their facilities and connecting with other artists had to be reconfigured as a one week virtual from home. In London, Alastair confined himself to his recording studio in the attic, I shut myself away in my writing shed in the garden and in Brooklyn, George captured footage from inside his Brooklyn apartment. We worked separately but together, coming together on zoom at the start and end of each day to feed in ideas from our own place of isolation. I felt myself extraordinarily lucky to be collaborating so creatively with my close family members. The week resulted in a film we were truly proud of.

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I don’t know if I have actually been writing more this past year, if feels as if I have, but I do know that I have been sending out more frequently than I ever have. Perhaps it feels safer to do that somehow from the fortress of home, but I also think Lockdown has been like a wake-up call. The pandemic is long and the effects of COVID, vast, but the virus also reminds us that time is short and the shrinking of worlds through lockdown allows us, at least it has for me, to find joy in small moments, do-able things. I grew my own vegetables for the first time and was especially proud of this patty pan squash.

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I’ve loved time spent cooking, watching films, reading whole books in one sitting and watching whole TV series, like ‘Call My Agent’ straight through. Also submitting to magazines and publishers and having some of it accepted! Years ago, when I was very green to this business and my novel Wyoming Trail was being sent out to publishers, the first few that received it turned it down and my wonderful agent, Mike Shaw at Curtis Brown (now retired) said to me, ‘Don’t worry, we are only making friends out there, not enemies.’ I took him to mean that it could only be a good thing to have my work read, even if it wasn’t received with open arms by the first editor to read it. I hold Mike’s words in my head, every time I send poems out now to competitions, magazines, and publishers. At least I’m being read, my work is seen and, to that extent, appreciated.

I am co-editing the Anthropocene issue of Magma, out Autumn ’21, together with poets Yvonne Reddick and Maya Chowdhry. The window is currently open for submissions. I get notifications each time a submission comes in via submittable, and whenever I hear that ping, I get a little thrill. I am touched and honoured that poets from all over the world are taking the time to offer us their work. I know there will be far more poems that we love and want to include than space in the magazine will allow but I am grateful for having been allowed to read them. And I know, from past experience that there will be poems and names of poets I will not forget, even if they are not in the end the ones we choose for our issue. In workshops with children, I tell them ‘a poem is never finished until someone else has seen or read it’. As writers we need to have our work witnessed by others. It’s why we write.

One of the joyful results of sending out work this past year has been my pamphlet Maternal Impression coming out with Against the Grain Press. The added bonus has been working with editor Abegail Morley on it. Maternal Impression launches alongside Chaucer Cameron’s In an Ideal World I’d Not be Murdered, truly an extraordinary and powerful piece of work. Not only do I now have a pamphlet to be proud of but in working with Abegail and getting to know Chaucer, I have gained two amazing women poetry friends.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the origins of creativity and the notion of ‘potential space’ as it is defined by the English paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott in his seminal book Playing and Reality (1971). Winnicott insists that ‘It is creative apperception [that is the process of making or taking in of something that is creative] that makes an individual feel that life is worth living.’ In Winnicott’s world things don’t need to be perfect, they just need to be ‘good enough’ in order for something creative to happen.

More and more I have been using the voice memo app on my phone when I am out walking. It is while walking I have the most interesting thoughts, but I am so absorbed in walking I don’t want to stop to write them down and am afraid in any case that it will spoil the magic if I try to do that. Instead, I have taken to speaking my rambling thoughts into my phone, talking to myself without needing to make sense. It is a delicious kind of madness and of course, on the street, no one knows I am not actually having a real conversation. If I’m wearing my mask and keeping a proper distance, no one knows I am saying anything at all. The voice memo app stores the date, the time and even the street location where the memo was recorded. I have hundreds of these stored on my phone and I like to play them back sometimes, randomly at home which gives me renewed curiosity and a desire to understand exactly what it was I was thinking. The urge to create comes directly out of this quest to know, to delve deeper, to make sense of. To indulge that urge is recreation (ie play) which is something we never grow out of needing in our lives.

CaptureCheryl Moskowitz was born in Chicago and raised in Denver, Colorado. She came to the UK when she was 11. Poet, novelist and translator, she writes for adults and children and translates the work of Ethiopian writer, Bewketu Seyoum. Her first poetry collection The Girl is Smiling (Circle Time Press) was included in the Sunday Telegraph’s review of ‘Best New Poetry’ and her novel Wyoming Trail (Granta) was lauded as ‘deeply moving’ (Scotland on Sunday), ‘an extraordinary, powerful novel’ (The Express) and ‘a fearless plunge into the deep pool of family’ (The Observer). Formerly an actor and a playwright, she is trained in psychodynamic counselling and dramatherapy.

In 2013 she was selected as one of the Poetry Trust’s inaugural Aldeburgh Eight and was on the 2019-20 Poetry Business Writing School with Peter and Ann Sansom. She is an editor at Magma Poetry and was a long time member on the organising committee for the European Psychoanalytic Film Festival (Epff) at the Institute of Psychoanalysis. Her poems have appeared in The Poetry Review, The New European, Finished Creatures, The Rialto, Magma, The Saint Ann’s Review and The Manhattan Review amongst others; she has won prizes in the Bridport, Troubadour, Kent & Sussex and Hippocrates poetry competitions; and was a 2018 Moth Poetry Prize finalist. Her poem, ‘Hotel Grief’ was commended in the 2019 National Poetry Competition. 

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