The day I received the email from New Writing North stands out clearly. I’d just received some positive comments about poems submitted to a prestigious publisher – although not accepted for immediate publication, the feeling was familiar – a sense that I was often close to selection, but an overriding feeling that competition was tough, results capricious and inherently subjective. The news from New Writing North was different – it was the beginning of a more decisive year, an important moment of validation.
In this time, extending from the new confidence instilled by the award, I’ve had my work taken more seriously. I’ve founded and edited the project, Coast to Coast to Coast, held a residency, and been poet and artist-in-residence.
The educative experiences have been valuable: over the past 18 months, as a direct outcome of winning the award: I’ve been on two residential retreats; attended the TS Eliot Awards and a preview linked to all of the shortlisted books; with fellow mentees I’ve been part of readings in London and York alongside established poets such as Caroline Bird, and Phoebe Power; taken part in monthly online sessions developing work on form, structure, rhythm and rhyme with other New North Poets; and had my work considered and critiqued in one on one mentoring sessions with accomplished poet and tutor Clare Pollard.
Through discussions with Clare, I became more assured of the worth of my work in all its forms (project ideas for a hand-stitched poetry journal initially planned between myself and my co-editor, and my own poetry). I have a fine art background and love to experiment (sowing the seeds of an idea and being open to organic growth is really important to me) – Clare’s open-minded approach and her engaged discussions respected and encouraged my way of working, whilst grounding it in rigorous considerations of form and structure.
There’s great joy working with peers and a mentor to really dedicate time to interrogating formal ideas such as rhythm and rhyme. These explorations were framed within contemporary contexts, such as through our attendance at the TS Eliot Awards, broadening insight into the poetic landscape we all work within. I especially loved the opportunity to hear and see the reading styles of the ten shortlisted poets. During the weekends at Highgreen, sessions discussing my ideas for Coast to Coast to Coast with Clare felt like sharing with a confidante. She helped me to believe in launching the first competition at a time when I was wavering. Attending Highgreen and meeting William and Cynthia Morrison-Bell also opened my eyes further to possible links between poetry and art.
An additional value of the Award was that it altered the way people and organisations perceived the seriousness of my work. I’ve always been passionate about the work I do, and know it’s important a writer believes in their own work, but over recent years, I’ve become acutely aware that affirmation from people you respect is essential. This awareness hasn’t changed, but, the past 18 months have enabled me to start to develop a mind-set of greater self–assuredness.
Sixteen months ago, shortly after winning the award, I launched the first issue of the hand-stitched poetry journal, Coast to Coast to Coast, which was co-edited by another New North Poet, Michael Brown. I’ve run two competitions linked to Coast to Coast to Coast, resulting in four poets being awarded prizes of limited edition hand-stitched poetry journals of their work. For each publication of the journal, I arrange launches located in places of architectural interest. Predominantly the launches have been in Liverpool. Since its beginnings, six issues of the journal have been created, one upcoming to launch next month, some journals edited solely by myself. Again, the faith in me as a poet and creative has kept me going self-funding the journal and completing the enjoyable but labour intensive projects.
This year, I was invited to be poet and artist-in-residence at Poetry in Aldeburgh. For the festival, I created stitch translations, a litany of work by 48 poets from the UK, Ireland, and France. This work and exhibition was the result of a prompt I provided for poets responding to a call to be part of the project. I think that the confidence to create something new and innovative had seeds in the affirmation I’d received after winning the Northern Writers’ Award. Working in a collective way has been a delight and something I hope to develop further.
Many circumstances over the year might have floored some of my ideas but the fact that I was finding myself in the company of more established poets, who respected and had faith in me, spurred me on.
Liverpudlian Maria Isakova Bennett founded and creates a hand-stitched poetry journal, Coast to Coast to Coast. She was one of the recipients of the New North Poets Awards, which are now open until 7 February 2019, and was invited to be poet and artist-in-residence at Poetry in Aldeburgh 2018. Her pamphlet, All of the Spaces, was recently published by Eyewear. All issues are limited editions and a copy of each is held at The British Library and The National Poetry Library. Copies of some of the hand-stitched issues are available from Maria at firstname.lastname@example.org