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Creativity in Lockdown: in conversation with Caleb Parkin

What did you find was helpful to you during lockdown and you would recommend to others?

Early on in the pandemic, I did ‘morning pages’ every morning for a week. This really helped me unpack all the uncertainty and anxiety that was – and still is – around at that point. You simply write for two sides (or whatever works for you) and keep going, freewriting and allowing whatever arises to be put on the page. I stored these pages and then in the biting cold of new year’s eve, with fireworks exploding invisibly from the fog, I burned them. This felt very cathartic.

My critique group has moved to using Zoom and their camaraderie and generosity has been so important. Having a ‘tribe’ who understands what it is to write and try to get that writing published is vital – if you’re not in a critique group then I’d say to find or start one! They could be anywhere in the country, or world, now…

How will you focus on your writing post-lockdown and do you have any tips for other poets?

April is always a fruitful time for my writing and I’ve taken part in NaPoWriMo / GloPoWriMo for a number of years. That practice of daily writing is so valuable and a great many of my published poems have arisen in this way. Even when I’ve just written something daft and throwaway, the act of writing something is its own reward – and sometimes, those pieces are laying the groundwork for something later on.

During April 2020, in the first lockdown, I started a NaPoWriMo catch-up group twice a week. We’d meet, bring prompts, then go to breakout rooms where we’d try out one of those prompts. It proved really supportive, productive, a great way to keep connected – and to forge new connections with poets across the country and at different stages of their writing careers. I’ll definitely do this again, so will put word out on Twitter during March!

What relationship do you see between creative writing and mental health and how does writing help your wellbeing?

Oh gosh, this is a huge one! I’ve always written as a way through the world, a means of containing the uncontainable experiences of living. It was only when I really made the connections between the processes of writing and the outcome (ie poems) that I feel I’m stepping into my creative potential. Studying my MSc in Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes (CWTP) was a crucial step in elucidating how and why I write.

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I think there’s sometimes a resistance to viewing aspects of the process of creating big-L Literature as therapeutic. To me, this manifests in Creative Writing MA courses not always giving sufficient space to consider emotional wellbeing through the creative process. Writing about our experiences – including traumatic or difficult ones – can be therapeutic, helping us form a narrative and give shape to inchoate masses of emotion and sensation. But it can also be difficult, re-traumatising and unhelpful when it’s done poorly.

While I’m passionate about writing’s potential for wellbeing, it’s not a panacea! It’s a practice – like art, music, drama, etc therapies – of using our skills and knowledge of writing forms and approaches, combining them with knowledge and experience of therapeutic, psychological, relational etc models – and artfully combining the two.

My hunch is that creative writing feels ‘too similar’ to talking therapies, which is why it’s not viewed as such a distinct artform. But writing about the metaphors we use regularly, for example, or to really explore relationships, to challenge internalised forms of oppression, can deepen and transform those conversations in remarkable ways.

Being a poet doesn’t mean you can necessarily run writing for wellbeing sessions. Likewise, being a therapist doesn’t mean you can just deploy poetry or writing ad hoc or without due consideration in groups or sessions. It’s a blend of disciplines and practices unique to each practitioner. I hope that CWTP and writing for wellbeing continue to flourish, but with the rigour and care which they absolutely demand. (See Lapidus International and their journal, LIRIC, for more info on this too.)

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What kind of goals can writers set themselves for the transition back to “normal” times?

Flexible and friendly ones! At an online event about kindness in December, I was really struck by what Shahroo Izadi – in conversation with Jane Commane – said about planning for the person you are, not the person you think you should be or wish you were!

This resonated for me. Establish what you need to write: as in, the actual you, the one you are now – not the post-New Year Resolution imaginary you. You’re great as you are! I find going for a long walk first really helps, or hoovering while I’m processing an idea. Fit it around what’s actually going to happen, so not whole days of writing – but sitting for twenty minutes, if that’s feasible for you. If I’m busy and don’t manage any writing for a while, that’s OK – it’ll still be there for me and I’m still there for it. We’re committed to each other, after all…

My sense is that there might be a bit of a ‘charrrrge’ back into ‘normal life’ when we’re starting to emerge from the pandemic, when real life events can start to happen again. But as well as being elated (as I will be!) we’re also going to be tired, emotional and – in many cases – struggling with losses of various kinds, including bereavements.

We’ve got a lot of rebuilding to do. While creative practice can and should be a part of that, it’s not the whole picture. I hope we can all give ourselves and each other some time to recover, to reconnect and accommodate people who are struggling. I’d like us to be gentle in our expectations of ourselves and each other.

What are you currently working on?

My debut pamphlet, Wasted Rainbow, is out with tall-lighthouse in February, LGBT+ History Month. There’s an online event – with a small number of open mic slots – happening on the 13th February. You can book the event and pre-order the pamphlet, HERE.

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October will see the launch of my debut collection, This Fruiting Body, with Nine Arches Press. That’s evolving at the moment, with edits, additions and order being tinkered with. I hope that the themes of queer ecologies, ‘improper affiliations’ and reconnecting to the mucky non-human world around us, will resonate in an almost-post-pandemic world later this year.

In my role as Bristol City Poet, I’m currently starting on my fourth commissioned poem – and looking to start some community engagement, which has been tricky over this last few months! My hope is to commence some work on a Young Climate Writers’ Network through non-school channels (it’s been impossible to connect with schools, for obvious reasons) and to write with some groups who tend to wild spaces in the city, creating zines which celebrate those green and beastly bits of Bristol. You can read my previous City Poet commissions here.

Looking ahead, I’m brewing a Research and Development bid around natural history film, AI, and videopoetry, but more on that later…

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Dolphin kiss - smaller[5619]Caleb Parkin, Bristol City Poet 2020 – 22, has published widely in journals including The Rialto, Poetry Review, Magma, Poetry Wales and Butcher’s Dog, and has won or been shortlisted in major competitions, including second prize in the National Poetry Competition 2016, shortlisted in The Rialto Open Pamphlet Competition 2016 and first in the Winchester Poetry Prize 2017. He tutors for Poetry Society, Poetry School and Cheltenham Festivals, and holds an MSc in Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes. His debut pamphlet, Wasted Rainbow is published with tall-lighthouse in February 2021 and his debut collection, This Fruiting Body, with Nine Arches in October 2021.

Twitter @CalebParkin | Website: www.couldbethemoon.co.uk

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Unlocking Creativity with Caleb Parkin

Finding Our Way Out

I don’t believe in ‘writer’s block’. There: I’ve said it.

As poets, I don’t believe we ever ‘start from nothing’. Or rather – I think that there’s a huge potential in every nothing we encounter. Our lives and lived experiences – although rich and vital components of our work – are also only one approach to writing.

My little bureau under the stairs is dedicated to what Don Paterson calls the ‘wild red eye’ stage of writing: where you play, experiment, set out to see how you might surprise yourself. (I edit upstairs at my desk, where I welcome the ‘cold blue eye’ of my Inner Editor).

Some mornings, the Muse rings the doorbell and leaves a parcel – or pops in for a cup of tea (they’re non-corporeal, so we don’t need to socially distance). Other mornings, there are no deliveries: I am there, with a notebook and a desk. But that desk is covered in decks of cards – including Fashion and Art Oracles, some home-printed ‘Oblique Strategies’, some new ‘votive cards’ which encourage embodied writing, the ‘Don’t/Do This Game’ of ‘thought experiments for creative people’.

There are fridge poetry words, and shelves of books of prompts. I’ve also got the Parrot Random Word generator app and several sets of story dice – real and digital (my favourite are the actions Story Cubes, which are great for getting writers to consider their verbs…). Sometimes, I’ll explore news articles – especially around environment – and then muddle up some phrases with found words to invite my response. You get the idea.

An aside: my late Granny Joy was a toy collector and serious hoarder (she actually had a box labelled ‘Bits of string too short to be useful’) and my late Granddad Eric, a toy designer and maker: I’m in a lineage of tinkerers and gatherers. All this creative ‘stuff’ is my way of embracing that inheritance. You might be an aesthetic anti-clutter minimalist – but keeping in mind that we can always ‘invoke the Muse’ is, I think, helpful for everyone. Which toys, games, ways of reinstating your playfulness, might work for you?

The video below is from a series of introductory writing for wellbeing sessions I recorded for Cheltenham Festivals, during Lockdown 1.0. This session invites viewers to create ‘recycled poetry’ – encouraging us to play, experiment, have fun and enjoy the material quality of words, to become their curators.

In the video, I use some straightforward approaches to cutting out headline words from various publications and colliding their ‘word hoards’ together in pairs. These pairs can become a poem in their own right, or you can use them as inspiration for a longer piece of writing (for example, the ‘Mallard Requiem’ or ‘Angel Opticians’ are crying out for a poem). You can use the Philip Gross ‘What if, what then?’ question and keep saying ‘Yes’ to that idea…

I also introduce blackout poems, especially in the form of Tom Philips’ ‘A Humument’ – which is an entire treated Victorian novel. Blackouts are a great way of answering back to a text – so you might enjoy finding an article on something you feel strongly about and ‘curating’ the words to alter the meaning. You can also simply highlight the words you want to keep. For me, there’s wellbeing value in feeling like you’re speaking truth to power through transforming things like articles, official documents, bureaucratic texts. I’ve done this before with school policy documents and it can feel subversive and empowering.

If you’re an experienced poet, you might well have tried these before. So here are some found poetry activities to challenge you:

Try out one of Karen McCarthy Woolf’s ‘coupling’ form. Take excerpts from an existing text – perhaps something ‘non poetic’ – and then intersperse your own lines between. You can try to make it follow on, or have the existing and interjected texts on two sides of the page. If you want an extra challenge, try to mirror the rhythm and maybe half-rhyme your own words, with those you’ve adopted. There’s a more detailed blog post on Couplings, here.

Try a ‘Find and Replace’ poem. With thanks to Claire Collison – who invented this form in a workshop of mine late last year! Copy a chunk of text from somewhere online, then use Word or similar to Find a particular word (ie a key noun, such as ‘President’) and then Replace all instances with something else (ie change that to ‘Volcano’). Then continue finding and replacing all the key words, those which crop up regularly, to other words – perhaps in the same type of word (ie verb, noun, etc) and keep going until the text is entirely transformed.

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I hope you enjoy these approaches and that they’ll remind you, next time you sit down to write, that the Muse wants to join us – we sometimes just need to give him/her/them an invitation. And the world is one huge invitation, if we view it as such.

LAUNCH EVENT: 13th February 2021

My debut pamphlet, Wasted Rainbow, is out with tall-lighthouse in February, LGBT+ History Month. There’s an online event – with a small number of open mic slots – happening on the 13th February. You can book the event and pre-order the pamphlet, here: https://tall-lighthouse.co.uk/caleb-parkin/

Dolphin kiss - smaller[5619]Caleb Parkin, Bristol City Poet 2020 – 22, has published widely in journals including The Rialto, Poetry Review, Magma, Poetry Wales and Butcher’s Dog, and has won or been shortlisted in major competitions, including second prize in the National Poetry Competition 2016, shortlisted in The Rialto Open Pamphlet Competition 2016 and first in the Winchester Poetry Prize 2017. He tutors for Poetry Society, Poetry School and Cheltenham Festivals, and holds an MSc in Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes. His debut pamphlet, Wasted Rainbow is published with tall-lighthouse in February 2021 and his debut collection, This Fruiting Body, with Nine Arches in October 2021.

Twitter @CalebParkin | Website: www.couldbethemoon.co.uk