“Poetry has been around forever for a reason. I think that fundamentally our lives are a string of experiences and art seeks to provide new perspectives. Being able to communicate an emotion or experience in a concise way can be one of the most powerful things.” – Celestine Stilwell
Ever thought about getting involved in the world of poetry? Pick up your pen and take some notes… I spoke to the wonderful Celestine Stilwell, about writing, what it’s like being a part of the slam poetry team in Durham and the poetry that they can’t stop reading.
Why did you start writing poetry?
When I was five I told my mum that I wanted to be an author, and since then I have been writing, but I didn’t get interested in poetry until later. A spoken word poet called Jess Green came into our school to do some workshops when I was about fourteen. At this time, I was so uninterested that I didn’t even sign up, but I was working in the Library when she came in and performed to some students – I was spellbound. I went home and wrote a five-minute-long spoken word poem and memorised it overnight. The very next day Jess Green pulled me up on stage and I performed it in front of over one-hundred people. I was hooked. Soon after I was booking myself into every open mic night around, and I did it while I was travelling too. It was an amazing community that I was on the edge of, and I wanted a membership.
Do you have a writing routine?
For a long time, I could only write when something had inspired me, and then I would churn it out. This year though, due to the Slam Team, I have been working on making it a bit more of an industrialised process and writing to practise whether I feel like it or not. This leads to lots of bad work, but also the rare gem which will evolve into something later. I learnt pretty quickly that you shouldn’t write and edit at the same time, not that I always abide by this. I have got much better, though, at scrapping work and tearing it up to remodel it into something new. If I am too precious, my coaches have no problem splicing my work up, which is such a gift. Poetry is an odd one, because it is often so personal, which can make it a really difficult form to edit.
What is it like being involved in the slam poetry team in Durham?
The Slam Poetry Team have become my family in Durham. I am constantly in awe of them and their work, and they are always there to lift me up with both my work and as a person. I had to audition in the second week of term, and luckily, they saw something in me, which they are now nurturing. There are three new members (including me) this year, and thirteen of us overall.
We meet for between three and nine hours a week. None of the meetings are compulsory, but we all do our best to make them. The content of these workshops always depends. Sometimes we do writing and performance exercises, and sometimes we get schooled on the practicalities of selling yourself as a poet, but either way we spend most of the meetings cuddled up and sipping tea. Poetry is so intensely personal, especially in the writing processes, and because of this, the team are very close. Our poetry Captain ensures the welfare of all of us, and we’re all very looked after.
We also do performances in and around Durham. In the last few weeks of Michaelmas, we were averaging one or two performances a week for various arty projects and competitions which brought us all together. The Slam Team is a time commitment but doesn’t feel like it because I love it so much. They are my friends and therapists and muses. I think we’re all a bit in love with each other and with writing, which for me at least, makes the time I spend working with them an escape from university work. I look forward to the sessions every week.
We mostly write individually but are always bouncing off one another. UniSlam is the annual University Competition which we work towards every year, and for that we put together some collaborative work. I had never worked with other poets until now, but because we are so close it makes it very easy to play to one another’s skills.
What is your favourite poem that you have written?
This changes all the time because I think that in the last few months my work has been developing so rapidly that I am falling in love with my own work again and again. I wrote a poem for Durham’s annual Slam Competition this year called ‘Growing Apart’. I had been reading Rebecca Tamas’ book ‘Witch’, which had been recommended by my Coach. The narrative style is gripping, but the imagery was disturbingly weird – I loved it. My poem ‘Growing Apart’ encompasses some of this, and I loved writing something that was more figurative.
The poem itself explores a couple who are living in two very different worlds. As the husband sits in his armchair, he watches his wife gardening through the window. “Her hands turned into thorns and snapped off in the flower-bed. She planted a piece of herself and got up to get the watering can”. As he distracts himself with the TV, it begins to rain. “Instead of putting up her hood, she took of her shoes and sunk a little, to seed level”. When he next looks, she has been engulfed by the storm, and he can only see a rosebush and a pair of shoes.
By next week, though, I may have a new favourite poem.
Do you have a poet that you find yourself frequently returning to?
I do love a bit of Larkin to ground me. He is so literal and precise and gritty and I am the opposite. It’s nice to be brought back. I’d love to write funny poems like Wendy Cope – we can all dream.
What would you say to someone who was thinking about starting to write poetry but didn’t know how to begin?
It might seem daunting, especially if you are attending events where poets are confidently outspoken. Please don’t forget that we all started by writing scrappy poems alone in our bedrooms that we didn’t show to anyone. The majority of my work does not make it out of my journal. As for practical tips, here are some that I have learnt:
- Keep a specific poetry journal. Do not be precious. Scribble. Observe. Note down. There is no pressure for anything in this journal to ever see the light. I keep four, so that there’s always one near me.
- Read all the weird poetry and take note. There are endless ways to write. Do not hold back. Get freaky.
- Find like-minded people who you can share some silly scansion with. If you’re struggling to, come to Poetry events in Durham and find me, and the other poets, and get talking.
If someone had never read any poetry before, what three poems would you recommend them to read?
Wow. A very loaded question. No three poems can even scratch the beauty of how varied poetry is, but here’s a few to start:
‘Witch Europe’ by Rebecca Tamas. Trigger warnings all around for this one, but it’s a journey.
‘Although the Wind…’ by Izumi Shikibu really encapsulates how so much can be translated in so few words. It stuck with me for a long time.
‘The Gun’ by Vicki Feaver. This was one of the first poems I studied with a strong narrative – I have now adopted this style into a lot of my work.
Want to find out more? Head to the Poetry Society Facebook Page to discover more about the upcoming events.