I love my life as a writer. It’s what I always wanted to do, but it does involve a staggering amount of anxiety, rejection and failure. It’s no more difficult, of course, than lots of other jobs and it doesn’t exactly save any lives (not directly anyway, and even then the life saved most often is my own) but being a writer does mean constant problems and problem solving. In addition to assembling words (words are only part of the job) a phenomenal chunk of time is spent trying to figure out how I can find the space, support and resources to continue doing what I love. It’s a conundrum every writer is familiar with. A few years ago I made the decision to try and combine my need to write with a vague desire to see new places despite the fact of very little money. Since then, I’ve been on the move between arts residency programmes and here I outline some of the ways I explain the benefits of that jerky, uncertain life-style to myself, and to others.
In my previous life as a community worker, long working days were not unusual. When working on Granby Park in 2013, I clocked up 12-hour shifts for a number of weeks. The time and energy to write was simply unavailable. So, I was completely shell-shocked to find myself with an 8-month fellowship at Akademie Schloss Solitude to read, write, research and do whatever I needed to do to develop my writing practice. This sort of time is a rare luxury but – amazing as it sounds- a self-directed residency is also a challenge. Day-to-day living in the real world does not equip most people to handle large amounts of unallocated hours. It took me a while to settle into the fact of being alone, and the sense of agency and implied responsibility that comes when you have no busy schedule, distractions or interferences to blame for your failure (if you fail – which of course you will sometimes). The time a residency programme can afford you is a gift (and on occasion a torture).
Visual artists have studios, but writers often find themselves holed away in sheds, perched on the end of kitchen tables, trying to write at one end of the library while a knitting group happens at the other. A residency programme usually provides you with a physical space to work. At the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, each bedroom is equipped with a proper writing desk, old woods and soft lighting. For me, a short path between my bed, kitchen and writing desk – in a quiet location – is the ideal way to work. In Ireland, I’d love to see more emphasis on the benefits of creating proper workspaces for writers.
A well-funded writer’s residency programme is not a common thing, but there are some good opportunities out there. A programme might offer, for example, a stipend, project budget, travel costs, rental and utility costs, the opportunity to teach a class in the community or give a reading for a fee. At Jack Kerouac House (below) I was given a stipend in the form of credit with a local super-store. This, combined with some travel funding from elsewhere, was enough to make the opportunity affordable for me. There are hundreds of programmes out there that charge writers a fee to attend, but I wonder if the concept of a ‘retreat’ and a residency programme are essentially quite different. I don’t feel that a writer should be left out of pocket. If a programme wants you, they should be willing to help you get there (that might mean helping to identify a source of funding for you from elsewhere). Equally, as a writer you need to hone your negotiation skills if you want to travel.
Part of the beauty of writing is the simplicity and portability of it. I need little more than a laptop, charger and desk. But a residency programme may provide other equipment or resources to help you develop your work. I’m always keen to find out what’s available and how I can experiment. Along the way I have used specialist libraries, access to performance spaces, sound equipment etc. At one institution I worked with there was a well-stocked audio-visual room and I had access to a whole range of camera equipment, which I used to photograph landscapes and areas relevant to my work.
Peer network and cross-disciplinary dialogue
Writing is basically an anti-social activity that can leave a person feeling alienated in ways that those who work nine to five don’t always understand. I wish I had a record of how many times I’ve explained that even though I have no manager looking over my shoulder, I still have to keep a schedule. I can’t leave my writing desk at a few hours notice and while it’s true that no one would care, I care. I care about making my work matter. It is, quite simply, easy to be in the company of other writers who understand all this without question. Most writers or artists would never dream of interrupting each other at work, or of suggesting that working through the night is counter-productive, or that surviving on toast and tea while you move commas around on a page is not the best use of a sunny bank holiday weekend. Other writers will respect your crazy routines and tell you when they think your work is failing. Also, I’ve particularly enjoyed residencies where artists working across different disciplines come together. Some of the best conversations I’ve had about poetry have been with painters and filmmakers. At The Good Hatchery in Offaly this year, I was the only writer among visual artists. And that was, I thought, no bad thing.
For me, writing is primarily about observation and allowing the world – landscape, experiences, people – to be revealed. Although there is a lot to be said for being still, and although I don’t think travel is essential to learning, being in different physical spaces holds enormous value for me personally. I have learned to dig down into social histories, explore landscapes and develop a sense of adventure. Engaging with new environments has shaped and deepened my writing. At the Cill Rialaig Arts Project last year, I discovered that I was quite near to the sites where thirty years ago the Kerry Baby bodies were found. It became almost impossible to not write, during that residency, about loss, separation and blame. Almost a year has passed and I am still processing, and writing about, the wild Cill Rialaig landscape.
In Ireland, there is a plethora of slam and performance poetry venues and poets at the moment. Most invitations to recite poetry come with an assumption that part of what poets do is provide a dramatic stage performance. This is not what I do, I write primarily for the page and for individual readers. I believe in the value of sharing work but, like a lot of people, I can be cantankerous and I have ideas about how I want to share my work. I have ideas of how I want my work heard and read. A residency programme can be a way of tuning into a particular audience or being heard by particular people. It can be a way of achieving intimacy, of taking risks and of obtaining critical feedback. I spent some time at The Poets House in Donegal and it stands out as a programme that was especially conducive to sharing work in a supportive way. I have fond memories of sitting around an open fire, in a cottage (which formerly belonged to two language-impaired sisters) at the foot of Errigal with a bunch of people who’d gathered from around the world to hear poems. It was the stuff from which poetry dreams are made of.
Is there any question trickier than that of “what are the themes in your writing?” I’ve been stung a few times, usually at dinner parties, by people who clearly think I don’t do a ‘real’ job but try to mask it with a respectful question. The problem with this question however is that, usually (I hope) the work speaks for itself, and can explain better than I – after a few drinks – what I write about and why. Themes are slippery. They change, evolve, shrink and grow according to whims and notions. One of the ways in which I have used residency programmes is to try and identify the experiences that connect my themes, to develop the language to talk about them, and to reflect upon what these themes mean for my writing. A residency programme can provide the time to really excavate what lies within your work. At Hawthornden Castle this year I’ll have no internet, no phone reception, and very little interaction with the outside world, and I plan to spend time on both personal and poetry-related reflection.
Competition for places on good writer and arts residency programmes is high. Last year I was wait-listed for a fellowship at The Château de La Napoule in France and the Macdowell Colony in the U.S. In effect, this meant that if another writer passed up his/her place, I’d be considered. But, on each occasion I didn’t move off the wait-list. Something about this experience of being exposed to application processes, wait-lists, and competitiveness is – in small bursts, I think – quite energising. Also, there really is nothing quite like sitting around a table with a bunch of hard-working, motivated writers who are excited about what they do to make you feel like you can really do more, do better, strive.
Poetry is an enterprise that often locks the head and heart into a kind of melancholy. On some days I have sat at a desk and forgotten to eat, forgotten to dress. I have (for real) aches from spending so much time in a sedentary position and was horrified last year when my clinician told me that my vitamin D levels were running into severe depletion. This sort of martyring yourself for the sake of verse is daft but not as uncommon as you might think. I’d argue that the opportunity to play and relax is something that a good residency programme offers. It’s an investment for the work. This summer at the Henrich Boll Cottage on Achill Island I plan – as part of the residency – to take some playtime, walk the beach, spend some evenings in the local pub drinking good Guinness.
Annemarie’s poetry has been published in Ireland and abroad. Recently her writing was featured in ATLAS