Twenty years after he died, Sally Festing inherited an archive of her father’s letters and diaries. Through these she learnt how her aunt and uncle, who she never knew, had been destroyed by schizophrenia. The suffering of his brother and sister drove her father, the neuroscientist Derek Richter, to establish the Mental Health Foundation. Sally talks with familiarity, respect and affection for relatives she got to know largely through studying her father’s records. Her poems vividly capture the lives of people whose suffering led to greater understanding and support for those suffering mental illness.
Sally also offers a writing exercise for writing poems from letters:
“Look at a few letters from the same person. He or she doesn’t need to be family, lots of poets write letters. I suppose they could equally well be emails.
“I’ve books of letters by Keats, and WS Graham. The last has always been an inspiration to me. His letters are pure poetry.
“A method I suggest to come up with a poem, is to copy out lines that interest, on a large page and read through until gradually, a form suggests itself that sends a message.”
So find some letters, see where it takes you and do share the results. Email here or share on social media using #poetrynonstop. The best will be featured on the blog and future podcasts.
On this week’s podcast Sally Festing discusses her latest collection My Darling Derry. It’s a sequence of poems based on an archive of Sally’s father’s letters and diaries which she inherited 20 years after he died. It explores the impact of mental illness on her family which led her father, the neuroscientist Derek Richter, to establish the Mental Health Foundation.
Here is a poem from the collection.
A Poetry of Release with a debt to WS Graham
My father’s efforts ran unhindered as the rain.
Those dearest to him from childhood
gone, he thought grief a gift he should earn.
There’s relatively little words can do for grief
but what else did he have?
There were, he knew, huge worlds to share. Explore.
Let this poem be a still thing, a mountain
constructed from glass. I begin with
the ghost of an intension which blasts itself
to nurture a new collision.
Perhaps the shape of us – the wreckage,
the shame and the dance – is in our language.
The biographical and surreal meet in Julia Webb’s second collection Threat. She shares a few poems and discusses the experiences which inspired them.
She also sets a writing exercise on memories:
Joe Brainard wrote a book length poem called ‘I Remember’ (you can read an extract here) where each line starts with “I remember”. This has been copied a lot but is a good way to free you up and get memories flowing. Start each line with “I remember” and just keep going – thoughts that come up can be from any time in your life and don’t have to be related to one another.
In the second part of the exercise take a memory and expand on it – don’t be precious about the actual details – it is OK to change things if it makes the poem better. Sometimes you might have to have two or three goes at writing about the same subject. One way to be more detached from your subject matter is to use the titles of people you are writing about rather than their names – for example: my mother, your mother, father, brother, uncle etc.
Please send your responses in here or share on social media using #poetrynonstop.
Julia Webb grew up in Thetford, a small town in rural Norfolk. She has a BA in Creative Writing from Norwich University College of the Arts and an MA (poetry) from the University of East Anglia. She lives in Norwich where she teaches creative writing and is a poetry editor for Lighthouse, a journal for new writing. In 2011 she won the Poetry Society’s Stanza competition. Her poem ‘Sisters’ was highly commended in the 2016 Forward Prize. In 2016 she was writer in residence on Norwich Market. Her first collection, Bird Sisters, was published by Nine Arches Press in 2016.
Threat and Julia’s first collection Bird Sisters are available here.
If you have enjoyed this episode please help me make more by donating via Patreon or Paypal. All contributions gratefully received.
This week’s podcast guest is Julia Webb. Here is a poem from her second collection Threat published by Nine Arches Press.
She was a biscuit barrel or barrel shaped at least
as he kept reminding her the bucket he kicked splashed lemony water up the wall her face a crumpled tissue on the floor the dog was whining outside the locked back door the TV was querulous and mundane the shopping was waiting to be packed away the kettle was whistling on the stove a child was shuffling on their bottom down the stairs
She was a biscuit barrel though whether empty or full was unclear he was a barrel full of vinegary homemade beer his contents leaking out across the floor a child had shuffled down the stairs and let the dog in in the other room the TV blared the shopping was defrosting in the pushchair’s tray the kettle was still whistling on the stove
She was a biscuit barrel mopping the kitchen floor he was cursing the kettle and the dog shouting through to turn the TV off or else his mood was vinegary and cold the shopping was scattered across the floor the dog was whining in the hall a child was crying in the downstairs loo the house was quarrelsome and sly
Leanne Moden felt like she’d finally found her place in the world when she accidentally became a teenage goth in rural Norfolk in 2002. In 2019 this became the starting point of her debut show spoken word Skip Skip Skip about finding your identity through music and discovering your tribe. She talks about developing the show and preparing to take it to the Edinburgh Fringe as well as sharing a few poems.
Leanne also offers this prompt for writing about your hometown:
In my show, I write about my home town, talking about how I imagined it when I was growing up there, fifteen years ago. One of the most interesting ways of talking about place is by using personification to articulate character. In this prompt, I want you to imagine the city, town or village you live in, and think about how you would describe it if it were a person. What would the person look like, sound like, and what would their relationship be with you? (This place is my sister. This place is a stranger.) Think about personality, how they dress, how they talk, how they walk. Remember to be really specific. Take fifteen minutes to write around this topic, then refine your writing into a poem.
Good luck with writing your own poems. Please share them via email or on social media using #poetrynonstop. Tune in to hear Patrick conjure up a poem that personifies Norwich.
Leanne is performing Skip Skip Skip at the at the Banshee Labyrinth in Edinburgh every day from 17 to 25th August at 7pm. For details of this and other events see her Facebook page.
Poetry Non-Stop will be back next week with Leanne Moden. Leanne is based in Nottingham but this month she is in Edinburgh performing her debut poetry show Skip Skip Skip from August 17th-25th at the Banshee Labyrinth. Tune in next week to hear her talking about how she became a goth in rural Norfolk in 2002 and used the experience to write a show about finding your identity through music and discovering your tribe.
I’m currently recording and editing more episodes which will be coming out soon. They will be going out every two weeks to allow people more time to listen to them and respond to the writing prompts. On the weeks in between I might post bonus podcasts. These will be shorter and may include additional material from the main podcasts or readings on poems sent in response to previous prompts. I’d also like to do some podcasts featuring poets talking about an individual poem and the story behind how they wrote it. If you have a poem that has an interesting story or writing process behind it then please email with a copy of the poem and up to 100 words on why it should be featured. The poem can be previously published as long as you have permission to share it on the blog and podcast.
Submissions are still open for poems written in response to prompts from the first series. Details here.