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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

Creative Writing

Creativity in Lockdown: In Conversation with Sarah James

Looking back to the first lockdown how did it affect you and your writing?

If I’m honest, I don’t really remember a lot of the first lockdown in great detail now. Because of my type one diabetes, I’ve stayed at home for most of the past year even when we weren’t in lockdown, and time has merged into one long splurge.

April started with lost work. I feel like I lost motivation too and have been living life and writing at half-speed ever since. This is partly because of the extra energy taken by worrying about the state of the world (pandemic and the U.S., where I have family) but also because writing hasn’t seemed as important in light of everything else going on.

But I know this is as much about how I feel as the actual reality. I’ve still managed to write, if somewhat sporadically. And I’ve still had good publication and competition things happen, including a photography, poetry and poetry film commission for a local art gallery (https://www.museumsworcestershire.org.uk/collections/from-the-art-gallery-with-love/sarah-leavesley/) and Arts Council England funding for  > Room, a multimedia hypertext poetry experience (http://www.sarah-james.co.uk/?page_id=12304). It’s just that I’ve done less than usual and the celebrations been smaller than they might have been in different circumstances – though I also know, intellectually if not always emotionally, that it’s more essential than ever to hold onto these good moments, as that’s what makes life beautiful and gives it purpose.

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What guidance, as an editor, might you give one of your poets who feels creatively diminished by this current lockdown?

I’d say not to worry about this or beat themselves up because of it. Life is extraordinary now. Some authors have used covid-19 as a chance to do more stuff online, which potentially overcomes geographical and financial constraints in terms of reaching audiences further away. But the virtual world isn’t the same as the real world, and many of us are writing less than usual and missing in-person interaction. The ‘muse’ will come back though, and so will the opportunities for getting out and about to share writing and books.

Meantime, and more generally, I’d maybe suggest focusing on things that make us happy, not necessarily writing at all. I think everything feeds into our work, so everyday living is part of the writing process. Anything I do that gives me joy gives me energy and motivation that is likely to filter through into my poetry. As writers, we all have our own inspiration, our own processes. But one thing I’ve found with writing less is that when I do then eventually write, there often seems to be more energy, creative force and staying power in those poems.

There are also lots of prompts, courses and groups that can provide both inspiration and community motivation. Sara-Jane Arbury led some Zoom poetry workshops for Ledbury Poetry Festival at the end of last year which I found very useful. (More about these, and transcripts including inspirational resources and exercises, can be found on the festival website at https://www.poetry-festival.co.uk/community-programme/.)

I’m also part of a number of other workshop, feedback and submissions groups, where sharing pieces or progress on work is a great motivational force to actually get something down on paper! (If anyone is looking for further prompts, there are some I created for my Poetry Society stanza here: http://www.sarah-james.co.uk/?page_id=10228.)

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You have continued to launch and promote your poets’ work. How have you managed to stay motivated?

I’m not good at doing nothing. I like keeping busy and having a sense of purpose. I also have a strong sense of responsibility and generally find it’s easier to promote others’ work than my own. The sheer volume of possible marketing and social media sharing etc can become overwhelming though – it is a potentially 24-7 job. I think prioritising and routine help here. V. Press has been running over 7 years (over 5 years publishing solo-authored pamphlets and collections), so I’ve tried and tested what’s most effective. I mostly stick to that, but then also explore a few new possibilities regularly as and when appropriate. During covid-19, this has included eBook versions of some of our flash fiction titles and an expanded winter sale.

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Is it easier to enable others than yourself when it comes to writing?

Yes!

What non-writing ways do you think poets can feed themselves with when the muse has packed up her bags and gone away for a while?

I’m a firm believer in ‘two birds with one stone’ and ‘not having all one’s eggs in one basket’. I think anything anyone loves outside of writing is joyful in itself, a potential source of inspiration, and hopefully replenishes energy, which may then be used for new writing.

For me this includes:

Reading – always a source of inspiration as well as enjoyment. (Reviewing for a journal can help give me an added focus and permission to prioritise reading over more mundane chores or tasks.)

Exercise (walking, swimming, cycling, running) – the feel-good hormones are a mental and physical health boost. Wherever I exercise, in moments of boredom (or concentration on the movement), I often find my subconscious will start playing with editing options or ideas for new work. The exercise pace can be especially useful with rhythms in poetry. If I’m outdoors, there’s the extra bonus that I’ll often notice something in the world around me that makes me stop to take a photograph or provides notes for a new poem.

Painting – because I’m a novice painter, the creativity of painting is less fettered by the critical editing eye that is always there when I’m writing. So, it’s much easier for me to replenish creative energy this way, that then often re-sparks the urge to write.

Photography – as with painting. except the critical part of my brain interferes more. But, in contrast, I’m more likely with photography than painting to then be inspired to combine text with an image and turn it into a haiku-influenced photo-poem.

Meditation/Pauses – I try to start each day with a ten-minute meditation. (I use Sam Harris’s Waking Up course as a framework https://wakingup.com/.) This often brings me a sense of peace, greater perspective and reminds me to be grateful for all the small things that make me smile, laugh or feel good. It’s easy to forget that there’s joy and wonder in simply being alive, breathing. If I get stressed or agitated during the day, I’ll maybe try to do a small pause, tuning in to each of the five senses in turn. Occasionally, inspiration for a poem will also arise from these, as if from nowhere. But, for me, this example isn’t really about writing directly, it’s about re-energising and re-grounding for whatever the day brings, including hopefully some writing!

If I emailed you tomorrow telling you I think I might never write again, what might your response be?

I’d probably gently remind you of all your past writing and the things that you’ve achieved with your poems and in the writing world generally. Talent and creative force like that don’t just disappear; they will come back, perhaps all the more powerfully for the time away from writing!

Any tips to help us during the next couple of months…?

Be kind to yourself as well as others – these are extraordinary times, and for many (all?) of us everything takes more energy than it might otherwise do.

Hopefully, something in my answers above may already be useful. Another suggestion is experimenting with something different using existing writing as an alternative to feeling pressured to produce new work. My A.C.E-funded project was about developing a new context for already written texts, and I’ve since tried out something similar on a smaller scale in a light-hearted multimedia hypertext poetry project Lines of  Love (http://www.sarah-james.co.uk/?page_id=13888). In the current circumstances, this kind of writing-related work felt more fun – and was still productive but with less inertia to overcome – than staring at a blank page willing the right words to come…

The final thing I might add is setting small achievable goals or using routine as a framework, but with guiltless freedom to break from this if need be. Poetry is important. But most important of all is life, and living it. And all writers I know (or have read) have periods when the words won’t come or just don’t quite seem to cut it right. As Mary Oliver wrote in ‘Forty Years’, “the world comes back | wet and beautiful” (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?contentId=39535).

Sarah James[5221]Sarah James/Leavesley is a prize-winning poet, fiction writer, journalist and photographer. She is the author of eight poetry titles, an Arts Council England funded multimedia hypertext poetry narrative > Room, two novellas and a touring poetry-play. Her poetry has featured in the GuardianFinancial Times, as a café mural, on the BBC, in buses and in the Blackpool Illuminations. How to Grow Matches was published by Against The Grain Poetry Press in 2018 and shortlisted for the International Rubery Book Award. She won the Overton Poetry Prize 2020, Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine 2020 and CP Award Prize for Poetry 2021. A keen swimmer, cyclist and walker, nature is a particular concern and inspiration, along with art, lived experience, poetry film and collaboration. Website: http://www.sarah-james.co.uk. She also runs V. Press poetry and flash fiction imprint: http://vpresspoetry.blogspot.com/.