Collaboration and Networking – Keys to Happy Poeting

I’ve been active on the poetry scene in Cheltenham since about 2004 and shortly after began to go to Angela France’s Buzzwords (when it was upstairs at The Beehive) and Cheltenham Poetry Society (CPS) meetings at Parmoor House, Lypiatt Terrace. A highlight for me during that time was winning a place in a Gloucestershire Writers Network (GWN) competition to read at Cheltenham Literature Festival and, soon afterwards, I began an MA in Creative and Critical Writing (Poetry) under Nigel McLoughlin and Kate North at The University of Gloucestershire, graduating in 2010. Shortly after that, I became Chair of CPS and was also on the Committee of GWN for a few years, when Rona Laycock was in the chair … and I co-judged the GWN competition one year. In recent years I’ve also judged the Chipping Sodbury poetry competition and co-selected poems for South Magazine. These are the kinds of poetry activities I enjoy most, along with selecting and publishing poems for my Good Dadhood project which I ran on-line a few years ago, attracting wonderfully affirming and positive poems in praise of fatherhood from poets all over the UK. I also enjoy doing occasional reviews of poetry collections, but as my method of reviewing is very ‘in-depth’ I don’t undertake many of these a year!

I began organizing Poetry Café Refreshed in August 2015 – a popular monthly guest poet and open mic event at Smokey Joe’s, Bennington Street, Cheltenham. I’ve booked nearly 70 guest poets (and one or two musicians) from all over the UK since ‘Refreshed’ began, hosted on the night by Roger Turner. One of the things I enjoy offering at ‘Refreshed’ is a good photographic record of guests and open mic poets, thanks to my husband who is a keen photographer. Usually, I share a video slideshow to Facebook within a few hours of the event, and this seems very popular. We welcome everyone to ‘Refreshed’, from beginners to experienced poets, whether they favour page or performance poetry or spoken word. Everybody is welcome.

As for Cheltenham Poetry Society, I’ve been Chair for most of the past 10 years, with a couple of ‘respite’ breaks, while I’ve nevertheless continued in a ‘communications’ role. At present, Roger Turner has taken the chair back for a period while I try to focus on my own work, but I still attend all CPS meetings, and organize events with the corresponding promotion and publicity. CPS runs workshops for developing poets, a monthly series of writing group meetings for experienced poets, and a poetry reading group, as well as the popular Annual Awayday Writing Retreat at Dumbleton Hall in May … and occasional readings and recitals. We’re always keen to link up with other groups for joint events, as we’ve done previously with Winchcombe Poets and Evesham-based poets. We’re especially looking forward to a joint event with other Gloucestershire poets during Gloucester Poetry Festival in October 2020, thanks to Gloucestershire Poet Laureate, Ziggy Dicks. CPS takes its community engagement programme seriously too. In recent years we’ve run various readings and recitals in local churches, and one of the most rewarding activities for some of us is reading poems and running collaborative workshops in local care homes. This led to me giving talks to groups of community workers in Cheltenham and Gloucester last summer, about the kinds of activities CPS are able to offer. Demand seriously outstrips the number of volunteers to participate in these activities, alas.

As well as writing, reviewing and event management, I also edit and publish anthologies through my publishing label, Eithon Bridge Publications. The most recent book to appear from the press (January 2020) is an anthology on behalf of CPS – Poetry from Gloucestershire. The book features 33 poems by 12 members of Cheltenham Poetry Society, and over 30 photographs illustrating the poems. It was thrilling to have endorsements from Alison Brackenbury and Angela France for the back cover, and I am very much looking forward to the launch of the book at Suffolk Anthology Bookshop on 24 March, with readings from the contributing poets. We are also presenting an illustrated performance of poems and photos from the book at Wotton under Edge Arts Festival on 21 April.  I am hoping for many more opportunities to promote the anthology over the coming year or so. The book is on sale for £9.99 from Suffolk Anthology Bookshop in Cheltenham and Alison’s Bookshop in Tewkesbury, or is available direct from the contributing poets, or for £9.99 plus £1.80 p&p by email to eithonbridge@gmail.com  More information about the book, and about Cheltenham Poetry Society is available by emailing cheltenhampoetrysociety@gmail.com or watch out for an article in March’s edition of The Local Answer! 

Publishing this book came hard on the heels of another anthology – Invisible Zoos – which I co-edited with poet/editor/publisher Simon Williams and published through Eithon Bridge in November 2019. This book featured 36 poems by 12 poets who had been on the weeklong residential Invisible Zoos masterclass with me at Ty Newydd in North Wales in September 2018, tutored by two wonderful poets, David Morley and Pascale Petit. The poets attending the course and subsequently contributing to the book came from all over the UK … and also from Canada/USA and France/Switzerland. Previous to that, I co-edited and published the illustrated All a Cat Ca Be anthology in support of New Start Cat Rescue in 2018, featuring poems from poets all over the UK. Before founding Eithon Bridge, I also did the bulk of the work to edit and publish the illustrated Cheltenham 300 anthology for CPS in 2016 … for Cheltenham’s tercentenary as a Spa Town. All four of these anthologies, and an earlier CPS one, Unexpected Encounters, were printed by Stroudprint, based unsurprisingly in Stroud, who provide an excellent and very helpful service.

As for my own poetry, I’ve had over 150 poems accepted/published in anthologies (from Cinnamon Press, Eyewear, Indigo Dreams, Smokestack, Fair Acre, Zoomorphic, Beautiful Dragons, Yaffle and others), in magazines (eg Magma, Obsessed by Pipework, Prole, Here Comes Everyone, Reach, Picaroon, and more), and on-line in many ezines such as Ink Sweat and Tears, Atrium, Rat’s Ass Review, Riggwelter, Amaryllis, Algebra of Owls, Snakeskin and many more. I’m also a fan of Visual Verse website, and enjoy writing to the time constraint stipulated. My pamphlet Interned at the Food Factory was published by Indigo Dreams in 2019. I’ve enjoyed ‘touring the book’ with readings locally as well as in Bristol with Silver Street Poets, Wells with The Fountain Poets, Welshpool with Verbatim and the highlight, The Poetry Café at Betterton St in London last September, with fellow Indigo Dreams poets Brett Evans, Holly Magill and Marie Lightman. Other places I’ve read in recent years include Colwyn Bay (with Prole magazine) and Llandudno Pier (with Prole and Picaroon). I’ve also very much enjoyed going to Welshpool Poetry Festival in 2018 and 2019, curated by the indefatigable Pat Edwards, which has fabulous visiting poets and workshops … as well as a bumper open mic on the last day.  A visit to the excellent Poetry Pharmacy in Bishops Castle, pioneered by the wonderful Emergency Poet, Deborah Alma, was also a highlight last year.

So, what began as a hobby fifteen years ago has mushroomed into a varied portfolio of activities and a widespread network of contacts … many now firm friends … throughout the UK. This networking was facilitated further by participating in Jo Bell’s ground-breaking 52 Group on Facebook a few years ago, and attending festivals in various other towns not too distant, eg Swindon and Evesham … but, most of all by the collaborative and supportive poets throughout Gloucestershire, and bodies such as Cheltenham Arts Council and Gloucestershire Writer’s Network, Rona Laycock’s wonderful Writer’s Room sessions on Corinium Radio, and Anna Saunders’ Cheltenham Poetry Festival which runs an incredibly rich programme of events each spring. I especially valued being one of the reader’s at the Indigo Dreams launch for For the Silent anthology in support of the The League Against Cruel Sports last year, and CPS gave an illustrated reading for their Cheltenham 300 anthology at Cheltenham Poetry Festival in 2016 – rerunning a similar event at Cheltenham Literature Festival’s Locally Sourced programme that October.

Now a fresh wave of ‘poetic energy’ is sweeping over the county thanks to Gloucestershire Poet Laureate, Ziggy Dicks; Cheltenham Library’s Poet In Residence, Josephine Lay; and other poets from Gloucestershire Poetry Society, with whom I’ve read a few times … and will do again, with the CPS anthology poets, during Gloucester Poetry Festival on 18 October 2020. I also read with Gloucester poets for International Women’s Day in March 2019, with Angela France and many other great women poets … and I’m looking forward to another IWD event in Gloucester this March, thanks to Josephine Lay.

It’s wonderful having poets like Alison Brackenbury and Angela France in the county. I’m indebted to Alison for supporting the anthology and launch for All a Cat Can Be, and for inviting me to be one of the readers for the launch of Candlestick Press’s Ten Poems About Horses, which Alison edited, and which was launched at Alison’s Bookshop in Tewkesbury last year. It’s also good to have poets locally like Jennie Farley, running New Bohemians in Charlton Kings. Readings I have coming up this year are at Piranha Poetry, Stroud, with Jonathan Muirhead from Swindon … thanks to Gary Death; and Writers at the Goods Shed in April, with Belinda Rimmer … thanks to Phil Kirby. This will be the second time I’ll have read with Jonathan Muirhead already this year. We enjoyed sharing a poetry event for Burns Night at The Rising Sun on Cleeve Hill on 25 January. It’s good to read with Belinda again too.  We shared a launch event for our Indigo Dreams pamphlets at Suffolk Anthology Bookshop last summer, and will be reading together again at Buzzwords in July, thanks ­– again – to Angela France. I’d also like to give a big shout out to Philip Rush, a fabulous poet, who also runs great workshops at Museum in the Park, and the wonderful Yew Tree Press which showcases the work of poets in Gloucestershire and beyond.  Phil’s Wool and Water pamphlets, timed to appear alongside the exhibition of that name at Museum in the Park, were super … and I was thrilled to be invited to contribute to the Wool one, sheep being close to my heart!

What’s next on my ‘Poetry agenda’? I ran a couple of workshops last year for a group of poets near Cirencester, under the ‘Stanza’ banner, having taken over the Gloucestershire Stanza Representative baton from Angela France earlier in the year. This year I want to develop more activities as the county’s Stanza Rep. The next such event will be a workshop at Parmoor House on 7 April, in conjunction with CPS, where I’ve invited Chaucer Cameron and Helen Dewbery to come and give us a workshop on the genre of poetry film. I would love this to spark a flourishing of poetry films from Cheltenham/
Gloucester poets over the coming months and years!

I hope readers of the foregoing can detect my enthusiasm for poetry in the county … and beyond! There are so many opportunities for collaboration, reciprocation and mutual support throughout the poetry community in the county. If you’re not yet into poetry, why not join CPS at a workshop soon? Or perhaps the special Poetry Film workshop coming up on 7 April, when we will be gaining lots of valuable information on how to get started with this incredibly powerful genre … or why not come to Smokey Joe’s to hear wonderful poets like David Briggs (19 March) and Raine Geoghegan and musician partner Simon Callow (15 April) … and grab your spot at the open mic. New poets are always welcome!

You can contact me via Facebook http://facebook.com/sharon.larkin or Twitter SharLark, or Instagram Sharolarki, or you can email cheltenhampoetrysociety@gmail for details of the Society’s activities.

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