Throwback: Back to School

What better place to begin this thread of throwbacks than right at the beginning of my poetry journey? This post will look back to my time at the University of Birmingham, where I composed my first ever poem (and later, my first manuscript), on the English with Creative Writing course.

The beginning of my poetry journey, yes, but not my writing journey. To do that I would have to take you back further than even I can remember. I was an ambitious writer as a child: dreaming up ideas while out on walks in the woods, and scribbling down on paper when I got home, before diligently transferring it to type on the family’s desktop. I had a penchant for the supernatural, as many children do: my first novel, Cielo, was about a fantasy realm in the sky; Diamonair was about dragons; Wild Fire told of a prophecy concerning a teenage boy, in a world where magicians had familiars… All rather basic stuff. But I do look back at those early works with fondness. I wrote so much ‒ whole novel-length pieces ‒ and I was committed and imaginative. I like to think I still hold that creativity ‒ I just never thought it would be channelled through poetry.

I applied to the Creative Writing BA at the University of Birmingham, with hopes of becoming a novelist. I was apprehensive, though, as I was a ‘self-taught’ writer, having never attended young writers groups or even been assessed much at school. At high school I was known as the ‘writer kid’, always picked for group projects that required drawing, neat handwriting, or storytelling. But I had only the word of my peers and my parents to go on: I didn’t know if I was actually any good. This apprehension became anxiety, and then full-blown dread, as I worked to complete my first creative writing assignment at university. A need to prove myself, coupled with crippling perfectionism, meant I only had half an assignment with under 12 hours left to submit.

The assignment was on the theme of ‘generations’, and I came upon my starting point soon enough: my family has lived in the Black Country for over twelve generations, and I had a fondness for the culture and the heritage. We were given the option of writing either two short stories, or one story and a handful of poems. A steadfast prose writer, I opted for the former, but only managed to generate one unconvincing story before the angst overwhelmed me. How was I going to churn out another story, in only a few hours, when I wasn’t even happy with the first?

My decision to try writing poems was, in all honestly, down to the fact that poems were shorter than prose.

Now, when asked why I started writing poetry, I cannot spin the same yarn as others: that poetry was a medium that just spoke to me, or I was inspired by others to give it a go. I turned to it because I was desperate, and figured poems would take less time to write. My first poems used proper published pieces as their ‘stabiliser wheels’ ‒ I adopted some element of the form, or the layout, to give me a helping hand. It did the job: I had something to hand in. Only when my assignment returned with a 72 (a low first class), did I realise that they weren’t just something, but something good.

That is where my poetry journey began. It arose out of anxiety, and still, for me, my writing practice is always shrouded in a little bit of worry. It’s difficult, but aren’t all the best things? You know that you love it, though, when you keep going.

  • A screenshot of files in Google Drive, with the names of some of my earliest novels.
  • A screenshot of files in a Google Drive, with the names of my early short stories.
  • A brown envelope that reads 'First Prize Elinor Cole', held above a printed page of a short story.
  • A printed page of assignment feedback, with the focus on the bottom of the page where the number '72' is written in blue ink.
  • A notebook open at the first page, with words and phrases drawn on in a mindmap. The notebook is surrounded by books, newspaper clippings and a CD about 'Bella and the Wych Elm'.
  • A short 'preface' paragraph, reading: On 18 April 1943, the remains of a young woman were discovered inside the hollow bole of a wych hazel tree in Hagley Wood, Worcestershire. No investigations, conducted by the police or by individuals, have ever solved the mystery of who she was, who murdered her, or why. Over seventy years later, anonymous graffiti still asks the same question: Who put Bella in the Wych Elm? Below it is a small sketch of a wych elm tree.
  • A young woman crouching on the concrete ground, which is covered in cherry blossoms. She is smiling up at the camera, holding a bound folder of paper, which has just been pulled from a black rucksack.
  • A poster for the 'Book to the Future' festival for 2018, with the dates (19-20 Oct), a logo (books stacked against the university's clocktower', and lists of the event titles and speakers.
  • A young woman stands in the aisle on an empty lecture theatre, facing the camera with her back to the stage. She is holding a book in front of her.
  • A young woman reads in front of a library desktop, holding a copy of a book in her hand.

That’s what I did with poetry: I kept going. It took another year to lose the stabiliser wheels, and in this time, I also dropped prose altogether. I found poetry was more suited for the close-quarter, snapshot nature of things that I wanted to encapsulate, and I no longer had the stamina for short stories or novel-length pieces. I elected to pursue poetry for my final year dissertation project, and drew upon an idea I had held close to my chest for many years, one which I always assumed I’d eventually work into a novel: Bella.

Through the positive feedback of my supervisor, Luke Kennard, and the wonderful poets in my group, I produced poems I was really proud of; when I handed in my final project, I felt fulfilled as a poet for the first time. Bella (or Cold Wind as it was then titled) was awarded an 85, and I graduated with a First Class degree in the summer of 2017. I came to the end of my undergraduate journey not only as a more well-rounded individual, but as a writer who had finally found her track. As a poet.

Although, I wouldn’t begin calling myself ‘a poet’ until the publication of Bella the following summer in 2018. Small indie publisher Offa’s Press had been wonderful in offering me platforms, support, and mentorship over the years, and with a publishing history of beautiful pamphlets which are grounded in place, culture, and nature, it felt right to go with them. When I held the publication in my hands, illustrated by my dad (one of my biggest supporters, ever since I sat typing up my stories on the desktop in his bedroom), I felt my childhood dream had come true ‒ not in the way I had expected, but wondrous all the same.

The full story of Bella, from inception to publication and beyond, can be found on the dedicated page of this website. This has been the story of my earliest steps as a writer, focusing mainly on my tuition at the University of Birmingham. I was fortunate enough to return to the university to read, as a published poet, at the Book to the Future festival of 2018, and then later in 2019, at my old high school. A journey come full circle.

A lecture theatre filled with people looking up (at a reader on stage, not pictured). The focus is on one young woman (me) listening and smiling.

If you read this far, I hope you enjoyed this post, the first of my thread of throwbacks. Other stories like this will follow, published on Thursdays.

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