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/.

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With You in Mind

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May 11 – 17 poet and editor Sarah James will be running the ‘With You In Mind’ online project in support of Mental Health Awareness Week 2015, culminating in an online anthology. Sarah will be giving her blog at http://www.sarah-james.co.uk/ over to other poets’ poems on the mind, mental illness and mindfulness (this year’s MHAW theme). She says she “will be sharing poems on the theme of the mind, mental health and from a range of talented and generous poets. It is far from an exhaustive list of talented poets or poems on this subject-matter. It is a selection of poems from poets whose work I admire, whom I thought from their past work, comments or work might be happy to support this blog project and whom, all honesty here, I was also brave enough to ask for this”.

There are poems from Deb Alma (the Emergency Poet), Markie Burnhope, Dan Haynes, Jenny Hope, Sammy Hunt, Helen Ivory, Carolyn Jess-Cooke, Melissa Lee-Houghton, Fergus McGonigal, Abegail Morley, Alec Newman, David O’Hanlon, Antony Owen, Andrew Rudd, John Siddique, Catherine Smith, Dan Sluman, Ruth Stacey and Sarah Wardle. A full online ‘anthology’ of all the poems will then go live on the website on May 18.

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A guide to mental health problems, topical issues and treatment options may be found on the Mental Health Foundation’s http://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/help-information/mental-health-a-z/ Mental Health A/Z.

Sarah’s second full-length poetry collection Be[yond] was published by Knives, Forks and Spoons Press in July 2013 and her debut full-length poetry collection Into the Yell (Circaidy Gregory Press, 2010) won third prize in the International Rubery Book Awards 2011. She has also won a range of individual poem prizes. Most recent wins include the Wordpool Festival Poetry Competition 2014 (with her poem animated for the Blackpool Illuminations) and the Poetry on Loan Poetry Competition 2014.

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Sarah James’ shed

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The Garden Shed

The – in as definite
as the wood of planks
and words can be;
close, in fact if not sound,
to that owned as mine.

Garden – a make-shift
structure against nature;
an expanse for guarding pots,
plants and hopeful sun-traps;
sometimes used for plotting.

Shed – his unwelcome space,
where she’d not trespass;
a changing ‘room’ or place
where we cast off worn skins
to find our natural faces.

 

 

Sarah James is a widely-published and award-winning poet,  fiction writer and journalist.

Her first full-length poetry collection, Into the Yell, (Circaidy Gregory, 2010) won third prize in the International Rubery Book Awards 2011. A second, more experimental, collection, Be[yond], was published by Knives, Forks and Spoons Press in 2013.

The Oxford modern languages graduate’s readings include Cheltenham and Ledbury Poetry Festivals 2013 and CAD and Friends 2014.

Commissions include poems on Worcestershire buses, and poetry used for Agfa’s annual report, Avoncroft Museum, Hanbury Hall and in Worcester Cathedral. She has a poem on the permanent Polesworth Poets Trail in Warwickshire