As someone with very little concept of time, my week at Arvon unfolded in a blur of exciting happenings – one second, I was hopping onto a train from Sheffield (I hadn’t been on a train since pre-Covid times so even that seemed moderately exciting!), the next I was entering a secreted world, hidden amongst the woods, of people who shared the same passion for writing as me.
Cobbles greeted me upon arrival at the station, alongside a friendly map inviting me to consider the various haunts of Ted Hughes and walks I could take around the local area. I was suddenly convinced that may be a horrible mistake had been made and any second someone was going to pop up and tell me there was no place for me at Arvon… thankfully this could not have been further from the truth! After acquiring my lift (and a driver who knew that Lumb Bank cannot be found on such mundane devices as a satnav) I was off, drinking in the beautiful Hebden Bridge as we wove our way upwards, to the place I would call my writing home for a week.
It’s hard to arrive at Lumb Bank and not immediately feel at home. Despite the inherent awkwardness of being flung together with a group of strangers and the idiosyncrasies of the building (I had never seen a room with ceiling hooks for clothes acting as a walk-in wardrobe before), the warmth was palpable. There was already the smell of something delicious cooking downstairs (shoutout to the Arvon staff for developing such lovely recipes – including for us weird vegan folk!) as well as suitably squashy sofas and enough books to make us wish we could all stay a good deal longer to appreciate them.
That first evening we were given a rundown of the week to come and had some time to chat over dinner before the evening ice-breaker session. We were a group of all ages and stages, ranging from those who had just started dipping their toes into the realm of poetry to those with full collections under their belts, but everyone was so supportive of each other’s journeys. During the ice breaker session, which was run by the lovely Mimi Khalvati, we were paired up and asked to tell our partner a story from our own lived experiences and, afterwards, to write our partner’s story as if their recollection was ours.
This was a very simple exercise, but reminded me that poetry doesn’t have to be ‘truth’. I’ve often worried that my writing will be viewed as a diary entry, when it is frequently taken far out of its original context, inspired by events that happened years earlier, to other people or to a different version of me. People sometimes wonder what the point of writing weeks are, but I think I could already see it here: it is a permission-giving, a freedom, and an allowance to experiment with everything you’ve been unsure about.
As the week unfolded, as a group we had many memorable bonding experiences, such as getting very lost in the forest together in the pitch black, cooking for each other and heading out in the early morning mists to collect interesting natural items to write about. There is something about three strangers trying to identify one path from another while bumping into trees that makes any residual nerves disappear.
None of us could believe how stunning our surroundings were. Autumn had well and truly settled in so everything was celebratory with colour. I heard owls nearly every night and developed a habit of waking early to explore as much as I could, finding near-endless steps climbing to some faery-style impossible height, wandering by the river and photographing fungi. Given that I often tend heavily towards writing eco-poetry, or poetry incorporating natural imagery, Lumb Bank was a humming, buzzing ecosystem of inspiration.
The best parts, undoubtedly, came from the tutors themselves. Katrina Naomi’s workshops were incredible, opening my eyes to the potential of the long poem and inclusion of footnotes. Manuscript questions were answered and I left every session feeling encouraged, feeling that I had gained a few more techniques and strategies to employ in my own work. Mimi’s morning sessions were just as excellent… her awareness of form, syntax and lineation was impressive and intimidating in equal measure but soon I was coming to understand a little bit more about the hidden capacities of the sonnet, and was delighted and appalled to discover just how many types of ‘rhyme’ there are (I could have named about three… I believe Mimi named at least eleven!) All of this fit perfectly with the one-to-one tutorials. Receiving positive feedback from tutors whose work I greatly admire, and whose opinions I trust, meant so much to me and I am so grateful for all the critique and advice I was given on how to develop my work further.
We had the amazing poet Leo Boix come in midweek to read, cue many of us tearing up as he reached the end of ‘Ballad of a Happy Immigrant’ with that haunting refrain ‘come back a man or never come’, as well as the absolute privilege of hearing our tutors read and finally, on the group’s last night, sharing the work we had all produced. While I cannot say that I wrote a huge amount during Arvon itself (too many distractions for an ADHD brain!) I came away with so many new ideas and just as many new approaches for my own poetry which I have been steadily incorporating since returning home. Leaving was bittersweet, but I know Lumb Bank will continue to stay with me through all I’ve learned.
I feel so fortunate to have received such invaluable encouragement from my tutors and peers who (as I suppose is the way with writers) seemed to know all the right words and made me believe in my own writing.
Thank you so much to bursary support from Hive South Yorkshire in partnership with Arvon for making this experience possible.