On Drafting, Scribbling and Sketching: Young Poets in the Archive

As part of this winter’s series of challenges with Newcastle University, we’ve asked two young poets to visit the Bloodaxe Archive in person to help us understand what exactly an archive is, what you might find in it, and how you can find inspiration for your own poems. Here’s what Young Poets Networker Lauren Aspery found out…

Prior to my visit to the Bloodaxe Archive at Newcastle University’s Special Collections, I had no idea what to expect. Having studied for my undergraduate degree at Newcastle University for three years, I had never even passed the Special Collections’ entrance, and now I am beginning to regret missing out on this fantastic resource for so long. Now I know of all the wonderful resources to which I have access, and which the general public can digitally access online, I am certain I will spend much of my current Master’s Degree here.

Beforehand, the word ‘archive’ to me meant one thing: OLD. I imagined myself sitting in a dark corner surrounded by dust and candles working through a huge, heavy book. To my surprise, this was not the case at all! The Special Collections reading room is a modern, comfortable space with plenty of room for researchers. It was nice and quiet (as every library space should be) and there was no dust in sight! The materials were all organised carefully into files and boxes, so instead of being greeted by a giant stack of papers to wade through, I was able to navigate my way through piece by piece. There is also always someone at the help desk to point you in the right direction, whether it’s a specific item you’re struggling to find, or if you need help finding the nearest toilet. 

After getting comfortable, I began to work my way through some of the Bloodaxe resources I’d picked out. I started with the Awards and Prizes folder. Immediately one thing jumped out at me: a familiar logo.

Just like the challenges on Young Poets Network, The Poetry Society was running poetry prizes back in the 80s! As well as The Poetry Society’s competitions, there were plenty of other prizes, ranging from the British Airways Commonwealth Poetry Prize to the Somerset Maugham Awards (which is still going today). I even came across a copy of an entry form for the Whitbread Book of the Year with a poetry collection entitled Zoom! from none other than the current Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage. But he didn’t win that year. It goes to show that even if you don’t win every competition, that doesn’t mean you won’t become Laureate one day (or at least end up writing for a living)!

The best part about the archive is you don’t have to be local to access this collection! There are some really cool resources online, like the Philip Gross proofs that you can access interactively. Take a look here. So, even if you can’t make it to Newcastle University, you can find digitised work from the likes of suffragist Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Scots Maker Jackie Kay on the Bloodaxe website, and have your own journey through the archive from the comfort of your bedroom!

Perhaps the most exciting part of my day was when I finally got to see some poetry in action. As a huge fan of James Berry and Philip Gross, it felt somewhat wrong that I held in my hands their original writing and editorial notes. There is something so personal about drafting, and it got me thinking about my own writing process. Gross’s work was covered in Tippex marks and tea stains, proving that writing doesn’t have to be a clean, timed process, but that some poets jot things down on the go, to better take inspiration from the everyday.

Berry’s editing choices were really eye-opening. His work was covered in red annotations, some even typewritten, changing everything from punctuation to entire lines. He made a particularly significant change to a line in ‘Happy Goodbye Song’, replacing ‘watcher of stone meeting gun’ to ‘watcher of gunshots outflying stones’, completely shifting the tone of the line through language. However, what struck me even more was the change to a title of one of his works, originally named ‘A Walk through Kingston’, which in an annotation he changed to ‘A Walk through Kingston, Jamaica’. This very simple, but effective change made me realise the importance of telling unique stories through my poetry. There are Kingstons all across the world, but Berry provides a unique poem about Kingston, Jamaica, not the Kingston just outside of London that people might be more familiar with, showing the value in poetry that tells the poet’s unique story.

Among Berry’s work, there were two versions of his collection, Hot Earth Cold Earth: one proof with brief notes added, and one draft filled with poems he had scribbled all over, ranging from typewritten photocopies and handwritten work to pages taken from his other collections. It really goes to show that a good poem isn’t necessarily completed in one sitting: it takes time to plan and draft and redraft in different formats and even the best poets take their time and change their mind. And nowadays it’s easier to write poems on the go! Now you don’t have to write your poems in a notebook – you can also jot things down in your phone memos, or even text random lines to yourself like I do.

Knowing your audience is also a huge part of writing poetry, and the archive reveals so much about it. Look, for example, at Berry’s children’s poem, ‘Listen Big Brodda. Dread, na!’, and adult poem, ‘People with Maps’.

There are clear differences with the way each looks on the page, from the size to the style of the fonts. My trip to the archive really reminded me to consider who I am writing a poem for when I start to edit my work, from voice and register, to aesthetic features like typeface and size.

The Bloodaxe Archive really opened my eyes to the messier side of poetry that we don’t always get to see in the finished books we buy. Published poets don’t appear overnight: there is a process writers go through to get that final version. It’s almost comforting knowing that some of the greatest poets are just as sketchy as me when it comes to first drafts, and that even the Poet Laureate started off somewhere familiar. Even though it was quite a daunting idea – to handle the work of people I’ve looked up to for years – it turned out to be an illuminating experience, and made me realise my own potential when it comes to writing poetry, even if I spill tea on my drafts or scribble out the same word over and over again!

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 visit the archive yourself – find out more here.

 

Lauren Aspery is a 21 year old student from the North East of England. She studied English Literature at Newcastle University, and is currently undertaking a research Master’s in British children’s poetry. Lauren is a two-time winner of the Terry Kelly Poetry Prize and was invited to judge the award in 2019 and 2020. She placed second in the Young Poets Network Carol Ann Duffy poetry challenge and performed her poem at the British Academy Conference’s celebration of Duffy’s Laureateship in September 2019. She was also shortlisted for the Creative Writing Ink Writing Competition in May 2019.

3 thoughts on “On Drafting, Scribbling and Sketching: Young Poets in the Archive

  1. What a pleasure to get a peep inside this splendid project… and Lauren’s insight that poetry is often messy, always work-in-progress. I love that fact. The proofs that reach the publisher are one thing (and I do know that the best exchanges with an editor are true creative collaboration) but the really fertile, generative mess is in the notebooks, backs of old envelopes and scribble-pads at home. That would be another whole archive, wouldn’t it?

    1. Hi Philip,

      Thanks for your lovely comment! You can actually view notebooks, letters etc. from poets in the physical Bloodaxe Archive, yes. There will be more on that in our next feature with Caitlin Catheld Pyper, who looks at Selima Hill and Sean O’Brien’s notebooks and correspondence.

      Best wishes,

      Helen at Young Poets Network

  2. It’s pleasing to know that young poets are discovering and benefiting from all this stuff. It keeps the thread going from past to present. Perhaps Lauren’s work will join the Bloodaxe archive one day. I hope so. I wonder if she has visited the Northern Poetry Library in Morpeth. It’s a unique facility and was in the same building as the bagpipes museum last time I looked.

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