The aim of my ‘Botanical’ project was to develop the work that I’d begun during a Leverhulme Residency at Moorbank, Newcastle University’s Botanic Garden, sadly now closed. This gave me a solid foundation from which to extend my interest in plants. I intended to create a full collection of poems, as well as attempt a foray into a prose narrative account of my explorations.
I met with Claire Malcolm, Chief Executive of New Writing North, to discuss my plans and she encouraged me to think on a grand scale, honour my dream of travelling to Sydney Botanic Garden, and apply for the maximum ACE grant available for an individual artist.
I also made contact with Cove Park, who agreed to host a writing residency as in kind support for the project. I would also spend Michaelmas Term as Fellow at Durham University’s Institute of Advanced Study, exploring their fine Botanic Garden. We also built in ‘work in progress’ events at Durham Book Festival over the three years my work would span. A dedicated blog to track my journey was included in the proposal.
Claire guided me through the application process, especially the budget side of things. It was demanding to research and write an 8000 word proposal but it really helped me work out what it was I wanted to do and how best I might achieve it.
You have to wait nearly three months to hear the outcome of your application – plenty of time to construct a Plan B. But, by that stage, having invested so much in imagining the project into life, I was reluctant to let the Southern Hemisphere go.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to. A few days earlier than I’d expected, I came home to a large brown envelope – success! It gave me such a high that the following day on a long-planned visit to a friend’s garden, I wrote the first draft of Bernard and Cerinthe, which went on to win the 2013 National Poetry Competition. It was a great relief to shed all the commitments I usually have to juggle to earn a living and devote most of my energy to writing about plants.
Padua in October was a wonderful way to start my ‘Grand Tour’ of thirteen of the world’s Botanic Gardens. At each I wrote, took photographs, made notes, bought books, talked to scientists and gardeners and accumulated a shelf full of notebooks, thousands of photos and a basketful of postcards, leaflets and cuttings.
I gave interim readings at Durham Book Festival, Durham and Newcastle Universities, Ledbury and Bridlington Poetry Festivals, Poetry International on the South Bank and at Keats’s House – all marvellous opportunities to try out the new work and engage with audiences and readers
Reading the Flowers is now published by Arc. It went through various incarnations before settling into its final structure and benefited from feedback from various poet friends. The book was ‘launched’ at Hexham Book Festival and Newcastle Poetry Festival in Spring 2016.
I spent a lot of time experimenting with possible approaches to the creative non-fiction memoir and have completed a 85,000 word manuscript. However, this is proving more difficult to place and remains unfinished business.
What the grant and the framework of ‘Botanical’ did was give me a sturdy vessel from which to research and write new work I was passionate about (and people seemed to like!). It guided me through the stormy waters of working alone on an extensive, ambitious body of work, provided me with contacts and much-needed funds, took me to beautiful gardens half way across the world and back. And for that I am immensely grateful.