I’ve been back in Wiltshire for over a week, after three days at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival and five days on a rural writing retreat at Bruisyard Hall in Suffolk, as one of this year’s Aldeburgh Eight. I had an amazing time, I’m so glad I applied for a place, and I’m still processing the whole experience of my eight day poetry bonanza.
Here are a few of my many highlights.
- My Festival Pass. Left to my own devices, I would never have booked into so many readings, discussions and talks. We weren’t exactly forced to attend nearly every single event on offer, but our tutors, Peter Sansom and Jackie Wills, were convincing in their recommendations. It was exhilarating to hear so many poets speak, to compare the different ways they introduced their work, and to absorb their wide-ranging poetic styles and subject matter. I loved the talks (about poetic technique and craft, about issues and boundaries in poetry, about favourite poets, etc.) as much as the readings. Being part of a group and taking part in group discussions after events was also really pleasurable and informative.
- My notebook. We were encouraged to carry a notebook everywhere and to write in it at any opportunity. I don’t usually write in my notebook at poetry readings but I always will from now on. It was helpful and fruitful to capture a favourite line, phrase or fragment, not to mention ideas for poems which cropped up while I was listening. I used the same notebook for workshops, discussions and for my daily journal – everything organised in one place – which has made me decide to streamline my notebooking from now on.
- Being by the sea. Always refreshing, interesting, invigorating, beautiful, of course, even if I wasn’t brave enough for a dip (which, according to some of the blogs mentioned above, other poets were). Apart from a couple of late night beach visits to see THE most stunning display of stars I’ve ever witnessed in my entire life, I didn’t get a proper chance for a long, seaside walk until the morning after the Festival ended. Good ideas sometimes materialise on windswept walks and the fish and chips were lovely, too.
- Meeting lots of poet friends from social media at the Festival. Putting faces to names. Our busy schedule didn’t allow much time for socialising – maybe I’ll return another year, when I’m not on the seminar, and take things at a more leisurely pace. There seemed to be a trend of poets renting houses together which seems like a good plan. It’s a long way from Wiltshire so if I go again, I’ll take a leaf out of the book of those who rented somewhere for a whole week so that there’s writing time built in, after the Festival.
- Bruisyard Hall. Our home for five days. When the Festival had ended, we were mini-bused over to this idyllic setting. It was spacious enough for us to be together but also enjoy our own space. Incredibly comfortable, quiet, peaceful and relaxed, I can’t think of a better venue for a residential writing retreat.
- My bed. A double bed all to myself. Most nights I read and wrote into the small hours. Sometimes I woke up in the middle of the night to write or read some more. And nobody minded. Bliss.
- My room. I loved my room, I loved my desk, I loved my window seat, I loved the view from my window.
- Somebody else doing the shopping and cooking. This was one of my top highlights. Maggie Menzies from The Poetry Trust cooked for us, lunch and dinner, every day. It was delicious and luxurious and one of the very best things about being away. Not having to stop and think about what to cook, and how to cook it, meant I thought about writing, it meant I did more writing, it meant I didn’t have to stop writing to go and cook. I’m so grateful that this was taken into consideration and a feature of the week. Not only that, the food Maggie made was so scrumptious, I’ve now upped my game and become a more adventurous cook!
- A daily walk at 9am. In pairs and with a given topic to talk about (to do with poetry, of course!), we were flung out of Bruisyard Hall and into its extensive grounds – all 700 acres of it. When I’m at home in Wiltshire, I walk every day – either into our town, around the town park, or further afield into the nearby beautiful Wiltshire/Somerset countryside. But I don’t usually walk first thing, I tend to wait until I’ve caught up with chores, done some writing, dipped into social media. I found I was more productive, and felt more alive, heading out quite early in the day, and this is another habit I’ve retained since returning from Suffolk. I’m really lucky to be taking some time out from paid work at the moment so I’m able to schedule in an earlyish daily walk. It’s great thinking time, it’s healthy, it lifts my mood, and, now that the days are shorter, mornings are when I can benefit from the best quality and brightest light of the day.
- A deluge of writing exercises. After our daily walk, we met every morning for intensive writing with Peter and Jackie. We sat around a huge dining table. There were between four and six different writing tasks each morning, usually centred on poems or images selected by our tutors. There was no pressure to read back but most of us did. This was the most intensive writing I’ve ever done. It felt like a year’s worth of workshops squeezed into five days. I wrote even if I thought I had nothing to write about. I made myself write. I wrote rubbish, mostly, but, in almost every session, I wrote something, a line or a few lines, that I’m really pleased with, that I’ll be able to develop into a longer piece, maybe a poem. It was wonderful to be surprised and excited by what I scribbled into my notebook. And, since I got back, I’ve been to another workshop and I found that I was able to write really fluidly and quite well – as if my writing stamina is completely in form. Long, long, long may this continue!
- The Aldeburgh Ten. I love them all! I couldn’t have wished to have been with a more interesting, funny, talented and inspiring group of people. It was a pleasure and a privilege to share a 14th century country home and estate with them. I’d do it all again, anytime! Look out for these writers, they are already widely published, or are becoming so, and with good reason: Andrew Rudd, Anita Pati, John Challis, Kathy Pimlott, Miranda Yates, Seán Hewitt, and Suzannah Evans. And finally, a special mention for Peter and Jackie – tutors, raconteurs, confidantes. I wish every writer could be prescribed some time with them. If that isn’t possible, I recommend Peter’s Bloodaxe book, Writing Poems, and Jackie’s blog.
There’s probably much more I could say but I can’t think how to say it. Mostly I’ve been feeling happy and grateful to have taken part. So thank you to the Poetry Trust, to Bruisyard Hall, the Garrick Charitable Trust and the Idlewild Trust for their support for the Aldeburgh Eight.