25 Nov 2021 / My Arvon Week
Bodies Lined with Gold: Lumb Bank, The Arvon Foundation, August 1996 by Sarah Corbett
Sometime early in 1996 a friend of a friend found out I was writing poetry, and suggested I go on a course at a writer’s centre he’d heard about near Hebden Bridge. He must have given me a leaflet – I can still see it – because I applied and was given a place on a poetry course with Susan Wicks and Moniza Alvi. I received a bursary and paid the remaining £120 in weekly £10 instalments. Back then, I knew almost nothing about the business of ‘being a poet’, although I had started sending poems to magazines and having them accepted for publication. This chance hearsay, and the generosity of The Arvon Foundation, turned out to be one the most important decisions I made early in my writing career. I returned to Leeds, where I was living then, after five momentous days, feeling as if my skin was lined with gold; I had been gilded from the inside out.
My memories of the week are lit with intense moments – the proximity of Sylvia Plath’s grave, which I didn’t visit (Plath for me was eternally alive in her poems, and I wanted to keep her that way), but another student did and wrote a poem about it; the very sweet, very old man I saw trip on the paving and fall past the lounge window. But most vivid is the hour I sat with Susan Wicks for our one-to-one tutorial looking at the dozen poems I had written that year. These were not my first poems – I’d been learning the craft of poetry since I came back from Prague in the autumn of 1994 – but they were my first real poems, where I had got my ‘feeling into words’, as Heaney says.
I can’t recall much of what Sue said, but I can see us sitting closely over the printed poems as I read them out, Sue looking at me afterwards and saying, ‘you know you have to do this.’ I’d already accepted my vocation as a poet, but knew I would struggle to make a living and was messing about trying to complete an MA in Sociology. I ditched the Sociology (I was terrible at it anyway), and on Sue’s advice began to prepare a collection of poems to be submitted to the Eric Gregory Awards, the main entry point then for young poets wanting to get noticed. On her advice, I also applied to the MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. I was given a Gregory Award in 1997 for an embryonic version of what was to become my first collection, and headed to Norwich to start the MA that same autumn. On the Eric Gregory panel that year was Cary Archard, one of the founders of Seren books, and within months I received an offer from Seren to publish my first collection of poems. The Red Wardrobe came out in 1998 and was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection and the T.S. Eliot Prize.
My essay, ‘The Long Game: On Making a Life in Poetry’ in the new essay collection from Nine Arches Press, Why I Write Poetry, emphasises the importance of that gilded week at Arvon in the summer of 1996. To be a poet, you must delight in solitude, thrive in the company of your own imagination where poems are born and begin to live, but you also need the support of other writers who have been there before you, or who are journeying alongside. Without that extraordinary encounter with Sue and Moniza at Lumb Bank, I doubt none of this would have happened, or least, wouldn’t have happened so rapidly. They saw my potential, delighted in it, and set me on the path to publication, prizes and acclaim.
Lumb Bank is situated in the cleft of a deep wooded river valley, where paths spider between trees clinging to steep banks. It can be a treacherous landscape if you’re not familiar with it, and I wasn’t. On the ‘free’ Thursday afternoon, the day sticky with heat, I headed alone along a grassy path into the woods. The path soon ran out and fell away to an almost vertical 30 metre slide, to the river below. The trees were hanging on to leafy mulch that gave way beneath my feet. I lost my footing and fell – not very far – a few meters perhaps – but I’d disturbed a nest of hornets. They rose around me in a buzzing mist. I’m asthmatic, and allergic enough to stings to know I was facing a drastic situation. There was no one around to help, and the only thing stopping me from sliding further, was my youthful strength and my will to live. I grabbed at roots and brambles and started to haul myself back up until I was at the top, re-found the path, and headed straight back, shaken but exhilarated, to Lumb Bank. I have always understood this experience to be an initiation, one that connected me to the spirit of my greatest mentor, Sylvia Plath (think of her ‘Bee Sequence’ poems) but also to the spirit of poetry and the risk of creative endeavour that, I know, will last me my lifetime.
Several poems in my most recent collection recall Lumb Bank (‘Sylvia Plath’s House’), and this initiation in the woods, where the speaker is stung but escapes, ‘beating the air like a claxon,/heart clapping to disperse the poison.’ (‘The Trap’, A Perfect Mirror, Pavilion Poetry, 2018). Ian Humphreys and I both live in Hebden Bridge, where I returned to bring up my son in 2002, and are currently co-editing After Sylvia, an anthology of poems and essays in response to Sylvia Plath, to be published by Nine Arches Press next year in time for her 90th birthday. The legacy of creative friendship and collaboration, begun that summer twenty-five years ago, continues.
Why I Write Poetry is edited by Ian Humphreys and was published by Nine Arches Press on 25 November 2021 (£14.99) https://ninearchespress.com/publications/poetry-collections/why-i-write-poetry.html
Sarah Corbett has published five collections of poetry, The Red Wardrobe (Seren, 1998), shortlisted for the Forward Best First Collection Prize and the T.S. Eliot Prize, The Witch Bag, (Seren, 2002), Other Beasts (Seren, 2008), the verse-novel, And She Was (Pavilion Poetry, 2015), and A Perfect Mirror (Pavilion, 2018). She also writes novels, and won a Northern Writer’s Award for Fiction in 2019. Sarah is senior lecturer in Creative Writing at Lancaster University, and lives in Hebden Bridge.
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