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Stevie Ronnie: Why Arvon is like The Arctic

Seconds after take off Northumberland is white–out cloud. We reach our height then eat in miniature before tipping to descent and the pleasantries of coffee / tea – sugar / lemon / milk. It has been a while and the tube of a cabin is new again. This is a Dash 8 series 400 prop plane operated by Widerøe. It is small and half-full. The hostess mistakes me for a Norwegian. She teaches me ‘takk’ for ‘thank you’ and ‘tusen takk’ for thanks a million. Speaking a few words in the functional tongue makes me feel less of an imposter. At these times when language is shifted, I remember its significance and power. It is not just the leaving behind of language that is affecting me, removing myself from Su and the children for three weeks is welling me up in waves. StevieArctic3 Strangely, some part of this journey took place four years ago in a pre-Domesday manor house in Devon. I was keen to give Arvon a go as reports from other writers had been, without fail, positive. I got my hands on a brochure and eventually settled on ‘Towards a first collection’ with Moniza Alvi and Susan Wicks. They were wonderful tutors and not too long after arriving at Totleigh I began to write feverishly, sitting up in the barn at night to work on the manuscript for my first collection. At the end of the week I glimpsed the book for the first time, albeit in its embryonic form. It wasn’t just me that had made this happen, it was the place, the people and the overriding spirit of generosity that provided us all with that vital ingredient: permission to write. Today, at the beginning of a three-week residency in the frozen North, I am setting out on another journey of creative permission. I see the passenger opposite adjusting her watch and I remember that when we land time will have shifted by an hour. I didn’t bring my watch as where I am heading it is as bright at noon as it is at midnight. I hold back an urge to think about how I will feel when this all come to an end. At breakfast on our last day at Totleigh we were each handed a piece of paper and invited to apply for the Jerwood / Arvon mentoring scheme. A few weeks later I put together an application and mailed it in. As a writer I have learned to expect rejection so I was shocked and delighted to receive a phone call a few months later from Kim Patrick offering me a place on the scheme. A year of mentoring with Jo Shapcott followed that has proved instrumental to my development as a poet. Earlier this year, my Arvon experience went full circle and I returned to Totleigh Barton as a guest tutor. I could tell straight away that the young people from Freebrough Academy were engrossed in an enivironment they would never forget. I wasn’t surprised that Ollie and Claire, the centre directors at Totleigh, remembered my first visit as they seem to remember all the writers that come to stay, following their future achievements with interest. The seat belt signs are on again – we are entering our final descent to Stavanger. From here I’ll fly to Oslo and then on to Longyearbyen, Svalbard on the edge of the Arctic Circle. A day or so after I arrive I’ll be boarding the Barquentine Antigua with twenty-five writers, artists and scientists. We’ll be living and working together before I return to Northumberland and my family. Surely something magical is about to happen. My ears pop. I sit back and watch as new lands approach. StevieArctic1


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