Since I last wrote I have watched Newstead slowly shift from early to late Spring – and even (without jinxing the sun today!) into the Summer. The bare bracken patches on the drive are now wildly green and flowered, and the rhododendrons have been glorious towers of purple.
It’s been an amazing couple of months – I met the wonderful Friends of Newstead Abbey and was able to read them some of Byron’s poems, as well as my own poem about Newstead, ‘South Stair Bow Window’. This poem was read at the Victoria and Albert Museum as part of Shakespeare’s 400 years celebrations; I like the idea of Byron and Newstead sort of gate-crashing the party!
There have been lots of chances to share Byron, Newstead and poetry with people. I had the chance to make a podcast as part of the training programme for my PhD, when I was interviewed by fellow Midlands3Cities student and poet Richard O’Brien at the NTU Centre for Broadcasting and Journalism. This was enormous fun, as you can hear here. The wonderful Nottingham City of Literature team published an article about Newstead’s many treasures on their website, click here. I was featured poet in the June edition of LeftLion; many thanks to the team there and to the very talented illustrator, Ian Carrington. Then just yesterday I was at Radio Nottingham for a chat with Alan Clifford about Newstead, poetry, Byron, and the peacocks. It was great to meet him and talk about this phenomenal place.
My brief when I started was to see if poetry can be used to help visitors understand the Abbey itself, and encourage them to enjoy the house as much as we know people enjoy the grounds. So during workshops organised by Melissa Lewis in the Communities Team, we took families into the house and asked them to write about what they saw, heard, smelled, touched and tasted. The range of writing that came out of this was astonishing, as our visitors highlighted things they wanted other families to experience about the place, and its unique atmosphere – the things that would make them come back. Newstead is a place of very many stories, for visitors to discover and enjoy. I wanted the poems that our visitors and volunteers wrote to be a way in – one of our volunteers (hi Judy!) described Newstead as ‘a portal to another world’ – the challenge has been to make guide in poems the entry ticket to that portal.
What we’ve come up with is a one page flexi-guide, shaped like a series of arched windows that echo the arches all over Newstead – windows, doors, ceilings – if you want arches, we can give you arches. We’ve called the guide ‘Windows and Shadows’, because Newstead has plenty of both. The title also suggests the way that each room in the Abbey gives a window to the past. As our volunteer Carole describes it so well, Newstead is:
Telling the story over the years:
the monks, the priors, the sirs, lords and ladies.
The dogs, the bears, the children;
the explorer, the writer,
The guide uses pieces of poetry like Carole’s as windows themselves to different rooms in the Abbey, helping visitors see them clearly, but also – hopefully – encouraging them to look and see what they sense in the shadows.
Creating this guide has been an astonishing piece of work to be involved in, because I’ve seen how poetry enables people to ‘remember things they didn’t know they knew’, to paraphrase Robert Frost’s essay ‘The Figure a Poem Makes’. The poetry workshops during the residency have made my experience of Newstead incredibly rich, and reminded me of why I write in the first place. It’s a kind of freedom of expression that Byron believed in and used as a guiding principle in his life.
As I come towards the end of the residency, the whole concept of freedom seems to me to be the biggest challenge Byron’s life makes to us today. How do we live celebrating our differences, to live freely whatever our opinions, nationality or sexual orientation? In my view, Byron’s poetry and the phenomenal existence from which it springs is a reminder to enjoy all of life, to speak for people who need a voice – and better still, to enable people to speak for themselves.