In late April, I attended a one day workshop at the Poetry School, which offered the opportunity to be a poet-in-residence in a London park or garden as part of the Open Garden Squares Weekend. In the morning, we were bombarded with information and ideas about how to run a residency, and in the afternoon we did some writing exercises to help us think about different approaches to create new garden or plant themed poems. On the day, we were also allocated the garden we would be resident in – except there was a hitch with the south London park I’d expressed an interest in. They’re keen to work with a poet, but had withdrawn from the Open Garden Squares Weekend. I’m still hoping to set something up, but unlike the other poets in the workshop, I didn’t have a looming deadline.
That deadline was the weekend just gone, the 13th and 14th of June. While I’ve been trying to make contact and tee up a meeting with ‘my’ park, I’ve also been following the progress of the other poets-in-residence via a closed group on the Poetry Society’s Campus website. One of the key messages we all took away from the workshop was to fashion our individual residency to the particular garden or park where we’d be located and to what suited us in terms of time commitment and temperament. Each approach has been different, and it’s been great to observe the residencies evolve and share part of that process. One or two of the other participants have also had some frustrations along the way, and again this was one of the things we were told to expect – it’s not all plain sailing!
On Sunday afternoon, I managed to visit a few of the gardens, starting with Fann Street Wildlife Garden on the edge of the Barbican estate, where Stephanie Norgate was poet-in-residence for the weekend. The garden, created on an old WW2 bombsite, is normally only accessible to Barbican residents, but from Stephanie’s accounts of her visits there in the run up to her residency, it sounded like one not to miss. There’s a wildflower meadow, a small pond, an insect hotel and even a fox den. Stephanie gave a couple of short readings while I was there, one by the fox den where she read a John Clare poem about a fox, paired with a poem she had written in response to the space; and another by the pond, three short poems recounting visitations by birds during her time in the garden. She also had postcards of two poems she was handing out to visitors, as well as asking people to write a few words about the garden on a luggage tag, which she will work into a collaborative poem. After another wander around the garden, admiring the poppies and foxgloves, tuning into birdsong, and chatting with some of the volunteers, I was ready to commit pencil to tag and make my own small contribution to the collaborative poem.
Next stop was the Postman’s Park to visit Ann Perrin, a Londoner now living in Brighton, who was thrilled to be given the chance to write in and about the Postman’s Park. Her enthusiasm extended to creating a small replica postbox for visitors to post their poems in, and planting out a poetry flower bed with some of the many poems she has written in response to the beautiful and historically rich garden. Ann also had a leaflet printed that she was giving away, featuring four short poems.
The last garden I visited was the roof terrace of the Nomura building at 1 Angel Lane, opened up for the Open Garden Squares Weekend, but otherwise not accessible to the public. Julia Bird was the poet-in-residence here, and her poem For the Rooftop Gardeners of Nomura was printed in the brochure handed out to visitors. I’d missed Julia, as it was quite late in the afternoon when I got there, but I know she was also planning to create a collaborative poem with input from the public. The roof terrace has spectacular views, and the kitchen garden celebrated in Julia’s poem is certainly inspiring. But the very formal landscaping of the rest of the garden didn’t really appeal to me.
Before Nomura, I ventured up to Eversheds Vegetable Garden, another rooftop space normally closed to the public. There was no poet-in-residence here, but I find it hard to resist a view. And the views are stunning, but what I hadn’t anticipated was the other-worldly atmosphere, serene yet also vaguely post-apocalyptic. As you step out between plant machinery onto the 7th floor roof, you discover a carpet of red sedum dotted with wildflowers. There are bee hives, and in one corner the vegetable garden created and maintained, in their lunch hours, by Marta and Julie. As well as lettuces and radishes, there are strawberries and raspberries, flowering lemon trees, containers growing both potatoes and tomatoes. I think it was the sedum that seduced me. Soft and squishy underfoot, it felt like I was trespassing in a Tarkovsky landscape. I didn’t want to leave. I wonder whether Eversheds would be interested in a poet-in-residence?