The Poetry and the Dragon: Young Poets in the Archive

This winter, we’re challenging you to write poems inspired by the digital Bloodaxe Archive (find out more about this here). We asked two young poets to rummage through the exciting poetry boxes in the physical archive and here’s what Foyle Young Poet Caitlin Catheld Pyper discovered…

Photo: Phyllis Christopher

When I think of an archive, which admittedly I do rarely, I imagine trailing down endless concrete staircases beneath a government building, the flashing fluorescent lights above providing a sickening glow as we descended ever lower. I imagine a basement room packed floor to ceiling with aisles of grey boxes and folders and an angry librarian stalking the shelves. Also, maybe a dragon.

So, when I was asked to tour the Bloodaxe Archive to see their poetry collection, I was pretty excited. For the poetry and the dragon. I had never seen an actual physical archive before, and, beyond the dragon, I had never thought what those grey boxes and folders held. This was my chance to see. I expected that they would contain poetry from several poets, most of them dead, and that I would get to read their works, have a biscuit, then leave. That was not the case.

Well, it was in a basement. Not countless storeys deep, but about one level down from the main floor of Newcastle University’s library is a small, sparse room. There was a woman at a desk in one corner, who I assume was a kindly librarian, but there was no dragon. At least, not that I could see; I was told there were more floors where the documents were kept. My guide, Dr Theresa Muñoz, signed us out one grey box with the words Selima Hill printed on the side. So far, so mysterious. My only real expectation was poetry. It was an archive of a poetry publisher, so there had to be poetry. After that, I was waiting to be surprised.

Inside the box was a manila folder wrapped pleasingly in string, like some literary birthday present. The first thing I noticed was letters. Letters and postcards sent between Hill and her publisher, Hill and her editor, Hill and her friend who she invited to poetry shows. Some she typed, but many were written on small, vibrant postcards (one in particular had the design of a floral toilet on the front). Everything, however, was stamped with a blue bumble bee, whether it was a poem or a letter. It seemed to be a sort of signature of Hill’s, possibly because of her love of nature, which can be seen through her poetry. Hill is comfortable and humorous in her letters, that if she doesn’t write by hand, she types on what I think must be a type writer. Overall, her correspondence gives the idea that Selima Hill is a funny, friendly woman. She seems to be fascinated with the natural world around her, and the simplicity of the past that she has yet to leave behind. I hadn’t read much of Hill’s poetry, but I got a sense of one side of her character through her general writing.

I didn’t expect the archive to hold such a wide range of documents on one poet; they don’t just store their first and last drafts, but all the arrangements they make before publishing: what the cover will be, what the font should look like. I even saw a letter asking for someone to write a foreword. I don’t think I’ve ever read a foreword all the way through. It seems strange somehow to imagine that someone was asked to make them. I felt and appreciated for the first time the work it takes not just to write a poem, but to get it published, because there’s a world in between.

It was in the second grey box of Selima Hill that I found what I think must have been the most interesting thing I saw during the whole day. It was a scrap-book made by a young Selima Hill, the front cover plastered with pictures of black and white portraits. Even before I opened the box, I could smell the age of the paper, heavy and coarse as I lifted it. In the beginning, the scrap-book seemed to be carefully organised and designed, each magazine article given its own double page spread. Most of the content jumped between articles on Hill’s favourite writers, playwrights, actors, orchestras and scenes of the countryside. Each picture was often accompanied by a hand-written quote from a poem, song or book Hill enjoyed. It was amazing to see a different side to the funny, unique woman we had seen in her letters. This Selima Hill seemed more introspective; she included pieces on war, politics and controversy within the writing community.

As the book progresses, you can almost feel Hill mature. She includes less on music and her idols, and more on her own personal world. There are feathers and scraps of fabric taped onto the pages, and near the end is what I would guess is a picture of Hill (or someone she knows) for the first time, posing excellently with a chicken. The scrap-book felt so important, so loved, that I couldn’t help but hold it like a holy scripture. It showed Hill’s inspirations and idols, such as the writer and adventurer, Ernest Hemingway. As scrap-books fall out of mainstream culture, the effort that people put into them becomes even more palpable. I was not expecting to find something so personal and raw in the archive. It showed Selima Hill not just as a poet, but as a person, which I think is important to remember.

In the same way, Sean O’Brien’s notebooks help to humanise him. In the first box dedicated to this poet, we found two later drafts of one of his books. Little about the actual contents of the poems changes between the two drafts – it was more about editing spelling mistakes. They showed not the crafting of a singular poem, but of an entire book that serves one theme. The order of poems in a book can affect the overarching narrative the poet is trying to create. The drafts I was shown display the tweaking and fine-tuning a book must go through before it is publishable.

The box also included a couple of O’Brien’s notebooks. The conclusion I drew from the O’Brien’s notebooks is that he has a ceaseless imagination. They didn’t seem to be for working drafts of poems, but they did contain lists upon lists of names and what seemed like random nouns. We understood little of this, but what we did notice was the ever-present doodling across much of the paper. They were always geometric, abstract interpretations of everyday things, such as cities, televisions and people. O’Brien’s drawings suggested an imagination that was active even when writing a shopping list. Like Hill’s scrap-book, O’Brien seems creative outside of his writing.

That was one of the main reasons I enjoyed looking through the archive so much. You got to view other sides to a poet’s imagination. Not just the finished, rehearsed poem, but all the ideas that spawned it. Looking at a poet’s archive offers an insight to every step of the writing process. From initial inspiration to a basic idea, then multiple drafts, then the processes of making it look appealing and structuring the poem. You get to see different poets’ own diverse ways of working, whether it be stamping everything with a blue bumble bee or doodling random drawings next to a poem.

Not everyone can visit the Bloodaxe Archive in person. Luckily, much of the archive has been uploaded onto the Bloodaxe Archive website, with the bonus of useful sections and search options, so you can find everything you are looking for. You could search for a specific word (love, death, goats- whatever you want) or the shape of a poem (from a classic arrangement like a sonnet to a poem shaped like a flower). There are also exclusive interviews with prize-winning poets such as Simon Armitage or Fleur Adcock, so you can further understand their contribution to poetry. I have already found the website very helpful in pushing me outside my comfort zone of the usual poetry I read. I believe it will be useful tool in exposing readers to a diverse collection of work. I was so lucky to get the opportunity to see what goes into a poet’s writing process, and I hope that the Bloodaxe Archive gives you the same insight and inspiration.

Inspired to find out more? Check out our introduction to the digital Bloodaxe Archive and respond to your journey through the digital archive by 26 January 2020 for a chance to be published and perform at the Newcastle Poetry Festival! You can also explore white space in your poetry in our second Bloodaxe Archive challenge, and learn how to re-draft a poem beyond recognition in our third Bloodaxe Archive challenge. Read Young Poets Networker Lauren Aspery’s feature on her trip to the archive, and, if you’re feeling really inspired, you can visit the physical archive yourself – find out more here.

Caitlin Catheld Pyper is a poet based in the North East of England. In 2019 she was a top 15 Foyle Young Poet of the Year with her poem ‘Mrs Richard’s Year’.

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