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Lockdown Laureate

An update from Kathryn Bevis, Hampshire Poet 2020

Since hearing the news of my appointment just before Christmas, I’ve been like a small child in a cake shop, tucking into all the wonderful opportunities that the role carries with it. It was great fun to appear on Radio Solent’s Breakfast Show, talking about the addictive qualities of reading and writing contemporary poetry (although how are the presenters so chipper at that godless hour?), and to be interviewed by the Winchester Resident magazine, by the Hampshire Chronicle, and by Hampshire Cultural Trust’s new online magazine Culture on Call .

While some of my planned face-to-face work has had to be postponed for now (my partner calls me the Lockdown Laureate these days), I’ve been both surprised and gladdened by how much of it has been brought online. It’s an unexpected privilege to be able to continue working from home and it does me no end of good to work with such a diverse community of poetry enthusiasts and poetry newbies all across Hampshire in this way.

Hampshire Cultural Trust have been brilliant at finding new ways for me to run free Poetry for Wellbeing and Life Writing for Wellbeing courses for adults in Hampshire under their Brighter Futures programme. Currently I’m working with a range of adults in live, online workshops, some of whom simply want some stimulus and an outlet for creative self-expression, some are looking to try out a new skill, some are in recovery from substance misuse, and others live with mental health difficulties. I love this work. HCT are planning to commission further courses running into May and June (including, we hope, a course for women on probation within Hampshire) and we’re also in discussion about the possibility of my making video recordings to share poetry prompts, writing exercises and games, as well as poetry readings online. Watch this space!

Before lockdown, I was lucky enough able to meet with inspirational people all over the county who are engaged in social impact work, to learn more from them about how to bring poetry into some new settings. In March, I met with the effervescently energetic Jen Walmesley from BearFace Theatre to share best practice for hosting prison workshops. I also attended a Growth Alliance conference at Southampton University convened by prison reform enthusiast Sarah Lewis. Poets Lydia Fulleylove, Sinéad Morrisey, Maggie Sawkins, and Steve Tasane were also extremely generous with their time, telling me all about the joys of delivering poetry workshops in prisons and enabling me to learn from their experiences.

Emboldened by all this input, and with the support of staff and governors at HMP Winchester and Solent Mind, I completed my security training at the prison and have, to date, hosted five Poetry for Wellbeing writing workshops with men who are being held both on the healthcare wing and on the vulnerable prisoners’ wing. The poems the men were able to produce in a short space of time were astonishingly good and I quickly realised that the place is brim-full of largely untapped poetic talent. I’m champing at the bit to get back in there once the lockdown is lifted.

Some of the prisoners’ poems will appear in a published anthology, What I Want to Say, that I’m currently editing to celebrate the completion of my year-long Poetry for Wellbeing project, funded by Arts Council England, which came to a timely conclusion in March. Teaching poetry writing to small groups of service users from Solent Mind and Andover Mind in Gosport, Fareham, Eastleigh, Basingstoke, Andover and Winchester, for ten weeks at a time over the course of a full year, and watching individuals and their poems gaining in skill and confidence, was a magical experience. I’ll always be grateful to the Festival, to staff at Solent Mind, and to ArtfulScribe Matt West, for their endless support and encouragement of this project: I couldn’t have done it without them. I can’t wait to reschedule our Poetry for Wellbeing Showcase Event when poet Liz Berry will join us at Winchester Discovery Centre to celebrate the project’s participants, their poems, and to launch our anthology (for which she has written a beautiful Foreword). Tickets for that event will be made available once the new date is finalised.

The role of Hampshire Poet has also brought with it some exciting creative opportunities in the form of commissioned poems; these are new challenge for me, and one that I’m thoroughly enjoying. I’m currently working towards a poem to celebrate the tercentenary of local naturalist Gilbert White’s birth. I attended the opening of insect photographer Levon Biss’s astonishing exhibition, Micro-sculptures, at the Willis Museum in Basingstoke back in February to gain inspiration for this piece (if you need a treat this week, head to his website to have a look at his work). I also met with Dave Hubble, local poet, artist, and ace entomologist to discuss all things beetle-related. Other commissions this year will include a poem for the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower; a poem responding to artwork from a forthcoming exhibition at the St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery; a fragment to contribute towards a book-length poem written in response to the impact of the coronavirus; and a potential commission of seven, interlinked poems to be made into structural features for a local charitable foundation.

In the pipeline for when the lockdown lifts are a couple of poetry and nature workshops at the Allen Museum’s gorgeous garden in Alton, as well as a nature and ecopoetry walking workshop in and around Selborne as part of the Gilbert White tercentenary programme of events at Gilbert White’s House. I’ll also be judging the Young Poets’ Competition and hosting workshops for the talented Young Wordsmiths as part of Winchester Poetry Festival’s Education and Outreach Programme; hosting workshops for vulnerable young people from Education Centres across Hampshire as part of Hampshire Cultural Trust’s Horizon 20:20 project; as well as delivering workshops for pupils at Eggars School, Stanmore Primary, Osborne School (I was uplifted to attend a Poetry by Heart assembly there in March), and at Petersfield Museum.

Alongside Winchester Poetry Festival, I’ve organised a poets’ tour, Watching Narrowly: Hampshire Poets to Hampshire Towns and Villages. I’m thrilled that Robyn Bolam, Stephen Boyce, Dave Hubble, Joan McGavin, Patsy Rath, Isabel Rogers, Steve Scholey, and Sue Spiers will be joining me to read from their work at some fabulous venues all over Hampshire, including at the Great Barn at Gilbert White’s House in Selborne and at St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery in Lymington. I’m also hatching a plan with the Festival to run a themed reading group on contemporary poetry, more on that in due course.

I very much hope to see you, either online or in person, at one of these events and wish you and your loved ones safe and well in the meanwhile.

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