Five years later, and my first poetry book has just been published by The Emma Press. This still seems quite incredible: I can riffle pages, sniff the paper and trace my name on the front cover — although only when no-one is looking.
But I wouldn’t have got to this point — and certainly not had as much fun along the way — without the Jerwood/ Arvon Mentoring scheme.
Poets are supposed to be confessional sorts, aren’t they? Well, I have a small confession to make: when I applied for a place on this scheme, I wasn’t quite sure what this mentoring would involve.
Would I have to write a set number of poems each month? How would feedback be given? What if I couldn’t think of anything to write?!
I needn’t have worried. My mentor was Caroline Bird. Those who know her poetry, or have been on one of her courses, will know what a talented poet and enthusiastic teacher she is.
But mentoring isn’t quite the same as tutoring. It’s not simply a case of handing over your most recent work, and getting a detailed crit back. This is part of it, but it embraces much more.
For me, working with Caroline helped me start to think of myself as a writer. Writing poems wasn’t something that now just happened in a small corner of my life, away from the paid work and the childcare. I felt emboldened to shift it centre stage.
I looked forward to my regular meetings with Caroline: we’d drink coffee, talk through poems in detail, and have more general discussions about the challenges of writing. These could can be quite wide-ranging: what kind of lexicon would a cockroach have, for example, or how to tell imaginative truths without necessarily sticking to the facts. We started to put together a manuscript.
Getting advice and guidance from a more experienced writer is invaluable. How do they come up with ideas and titles, tackle edits, know when a poem is finished (it generally isn’t).
And there is also the encouragement: to play, to try something new, to be braver, to give it a go and not worry what others might think. We were encouraged to write about the personal, with abandon. For someone like me this was a lot harder than it sounds!
You need to believe in yourself as a writer, but this is much easier if you’ve a mentor cheering you on from the sidelines. This support doesn’t just come from them though; it also came from the talented, funny and downright wonderful writers who also took part in this scheme.
During the two weeks at Totleigh Barton — which bookmarked the year — we wrote a lot, laughed a lot, discussed all things writerly, and stayed up far too late drinking cider. I was so proud to be part of this group.
It’s almost a year now since that year. I am quite envious of those just starting out on their own Jerwood/ Arvon journey. If you go on a course this year, think seriously about applying. I never thought I’d get on it, and almost didn’t bother sending off my application. I’m glad I surprised myself.