Wednesday, September 11, 2019

My (small press) writing day - Susie Campbell

(actual desk photo)

To have a whole writing day is rare and precious. Mostly I have writing evenings or chunks of writing time at the weekend. Like many people, I combine writing poetry with a full-time job plus, studying for a part-time PhD and an increasingly demanding schedule of activism (for the climate, environment and social justice). These different parts of my life are not neatly compartmentalised, there are strong interlinking threads between them, but they all demand time. But occasionally I have a whole day for writing which is as frightening as it is liberating. Whether a whole day or a few snatched hours, this is how it usually goes.

It starts with a walk along the river. I am fortunate enough to live near the town sewage works, recycling centre and bypass, which means I can afford to live right on the bank of the river which runs through the cheapest part of town. As an industrialised river, there are stretches which are impossible to walk because they are fenced off, backyards of factories and industrial estates, but there are also stretches which are wilder, more neglected and still banked by trees and open meadows. There is a twenty-minute stretch of accessible riverbank near where I live and this is where I walk each day. I usually carry a notebook or sketchpad and my camping stool so that I can spend some time sitting by the river, scribbling or sketching. This is as much my writing place as my desk.

(riverbank photo)

Getting started at my actual desk involves first ensuring that the various bird feeders in my little wild garden are topped up with seeds and peanuts - an activity that is repeated endlessly throughout the day. The faster I put out food, the more the birds eat. Unless it is mid-winter I work by an open door most of the year. As the seasons change, I add blankets and a hot water bottle until it is too damp or too cold.

My writing process differs hugely depending on the project. I rarely write single stand-alone poems. More often I use poetry to explore or investigate a current obsession or theory. I tend to write big series or sequences of poems, or sometimes extended poems that can take up to five or six months to construct.

Not long ago I became obsessed with trying to reconstruct the river journey my grandmother's body took when she took her own life by drowning. Her body disappeared for fourteen days then reappeared many miles downriver. This happened long before I came to live on the bank of the same river but I became obsessed with trying to reconstruct her physical journey as well as the narrative of what happened, piecing together police and coroner reports, and walking or rowing the river stretch to solve the mystery of how her body passed through seemingly impassable stretches of water.  My camping stool, my small rowing boat and my notebook became my new writing desk. The final poem that emerged was a fragmented record of the impossibility of re-constructing a complete journey, narrative or understanding.

I waited but she did not return                     for some time then you turn away
The body surfaces in unexpected     answering the description subsequently
given of her floating in a backwater                                 still she never came

(from 'Navigations')

More recently, I have been using poetry to investigate the making of marks and the world of signs, marks, scratches and stains with which we are surrounded. This has meant developing my own set of marks, using chalk, charcoal, paints and ink. Sometimes I have worked at my desk, but more often I have used the walls of my house and the road outside to try out the marks in different media. The project expanded to exploring what would happen if I inserted my marks into a wider landscape of signs and marks so I took to the top floor of a multi-storey car park, a back alley behind a supermarket, my local train station and other urban locations, chalking and photographing the marks as well as exploring textual marks. My desk became the site for assembling these materials and editing them into what became my chapbook 'I return to you'.

I am not yet sure what my next project will be but in the meantime I have washed away the chalk and charcoal marks, and packed up my notepad and camping stool, ready for my next walk along the river.

Susie Campbell writes poetry and is currently working on a practice-based poetry PhD programme at Oxford Brookes. She also works in education, providing specialist services to ensure equal opportunities for children who may need additional support. Her poetry has been published in a number of anthologies and magazines including The Valley Press Anthology of Prose Poetry, Shearsman, Long Poem Magazine ('Navigations' quoted above appeared in Issue 19, Spring 2018), 3AM, and PERVERSE. Her poetry pamphlets are The Bitters (Dancing Girl Press, 2014), The Frock Enquiry (Annexe, 2015), I Return To You (Sampson Low, 2019) and forthcoming, Tenter (Guillemot Press, 2020).

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