Last week, I saw via a post on Facebook that an Independent Review of Support for Publishing and Literature in Wales had been published. Within those pages the Tŷ Newydd Creative Writing Centre had received damaging criticism, which is so at odds with my experience of Tŷ Newydd that I feel obliged to write this in support of Tŷ Newydd
You can find the report here
The paragraph below is taken directly from the report.
Tŷ Newydd seems to be mainly aimed at ‘retired hobbyists’ but it was unclear who Tŷ Newydd caters for and why it is receiving public subsidy. It was also unclear how many individuals, who have attended a course at Tŷ Newydd, have gone on to publish a book. This kind of residential literary course is viewed by many to be outdated in the current creative writing boom in the digital age . Tŷ Newydd offers little for professional writers or disadvantaged areas [despite being located in a convergence area where GDP is low which should provide opportunities for it to do so]
Where do I start with this? It seems strange to me that in a comprehensive report, the writers didn’t bother to find out from Tŷ Newydd who they cater for – surely this question would have been answered with a simple conversation? I’ve since found out that nobody visited Tŷ Newydd, prior to publishing the report, which perhaps explains this.
I first went to Tŷ Newydd in 2007. Back then I was 25 years old and working as a full time Peripatetic Brass Teacher for Cumbria Music Service. Hardly a ‘retired hobbyist’ then, but I take umbrage with that rather offensive term anyway – do they want retired people to stay at home and not engage in creative activities, despite the widely recognised health benefits?
However, I was definitely a ‘hobbyist’ – I had not published anything anywhere or even thought about publishing. I hadn’t read a poetry magazine, or even many poetry collections. I had a career as a music teacher and I was performing on and off in orchestras and shows. I was also extremely unhappy. Teaching was (and is) a difficult and stressful job. I’d always wanted to be a professional musician, but anxiety and low self-esteem were making any professional work I did get as a trumpet player extremely painful. I joined a poetry group, Fourth Monday Poets and one of the poets there, Jennifer Copley, gave me a brochure for Tŷ Newydd and told me I’d enjoy it. So I booked a week’s residential with Sarah Kennedy and Nigel Jenkins in the summer holidays of 2007.
I was also quite poor after years of being a student, and the staff at Tŷ Newydd let me pay for my course monthly which was a huge help. That week at Tŷ Newydd completely changed my life. I’ve written before about the impact of the tutors, Nigel and Sarah, and how their encouragement and enthusiasm and kindness made a huge difference to me. But Tŷ Newydd is a magical place, it has the same magic that Lumb Bank has that I wrote about last week. That magic is hard to explain, but there is something special about going to a place that is dedicated to writers and writing and being creative.
So when I first went to Tŷ Newydd I was a ‘hobbyist’. I remained a hobbyist for another five years or so, except I was an obsessive hobbyist, and poetry became this huge and important thing in my life. Over the years I carried on going to Tŷ Newydd on other residentials and each one was the catalyst for other events. I went on the Masterclass with Gillian Clarke and Carol Ann Duffy. After this week, I decided to take the plunge and apply for a place on the MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University which I was accepted on to. I went on a course with Ian Duhig and Ruth Padel and wrote many of the poems which made it into my first collection, published in 2015. I went on a residential with Alan Jenkins and Fiona Sampson, which again, was a life-changing week which pushed my poetry further and gave me the confidence to raise my ambitions for my own work.
So in answer to the sentence in the report that asks how many individuals went on to publish a book after attending Tŷ Newydd, well I’m one of them, and surely as the writers of this report, they could find out this information fairly easily? I could put a Facebook post up and find out. But this question kind of misses the point of Tŷ Newyddand of residential courses for me. They are not there to make sure that all participants publish a book. Residential courses are physical and mental spaces where like-minded people can come and escape from the stress and pressures of their everyday lives and put themselves and their own creativity first, not with the aim of publishing something, maybe not with any purpose at all except to be creative.
I didn’t go to Tŷ Newydd to become a published poet. I went because I loved poetry and I wanted to sit and read and write and talk about it for a week. I went because I felt like I was suffocating in my life and I needed to do something different. Other people go to improve their writing. Other people go because they are lonely and it is a holiday. Other people go because once a year they like to go and write poetry and then forget about it until the next year. Other people go because they want the chance to study with a poet they’ve always admired. Other people go because they desperately want to be published. Who is to say which reason is more valid, and one of the things I love about residentials is that there is a whole mix of reasons of why people are there. If there was just a whole cohort of people desperate to be published it would make for a rather miserable week.
I’ve also met some wonderful people on these courses – call it networking if that makes it more ‘measurable’ in terms of report writing, I prefer to call it friendship. I met one of my best friends on a residential, who was then my bridesmaid at my wedding years later. I met some fantastic poets who I’ve worked with and read with since then. Living in a geographically isolated area, this is another aspect of going on a residential that is really important to me.
Fast forward ten years, and I’ve been working as a professional poet for about the last five years, gradually reducing my music teaching and building up my freelance writing career. I’ve performed at festivals in Croatia, Ireland, Holland and all over the UK. I’ve ran workshops and residentials. Two years ago I went back to Tŷ Newyddand tutored with the poet Clare Shaw on a schools course. Last year I went back as a guest poet on a course run by Jonathan Edwards and Patience Agbabi. I’ve just got back from being a guest poet at Lumb Bank on a residential week with Peter and Ann Sansom as the tutors. It felt pretty amazing to be sitting and giving a reading, knowing that my journey as a writer really started on a residential course.
As for the sentence in the report
This kind of residential literary course is viewed by many to be outdated in the current creative writing boom in the digital age
says who? Who are the many? This sentence made me laugh out loud. There is no evidence that I know of to support this. I run my own residential courses now at hotels in the Lake District and Cornwall, and I never have trouble with filling the places. This sentence shows again, a distinct lack of understanding about the atmosphere and magic of a creative writing course, which as brilliant as digital courses are (and I tutor on those as well) cannot be replicated online, no matter how good the course is. And online courses are not trying to replicate residential courses anyway, nor should they try to – they are fulfilling a completely different need. In my experience, again of tutoring on online courses and taking part in them, they are great for people who can’t put their lives down and go off for a week, so it is like comparing apples with oranges as the saying goes.
I would also like to say that there was a year when I couldn’t afford to go on a residential course I really wanted to go on. My husband had finished his full time job to start his own business and we were living on my salary alone. I wrote to Tŷ Newydd, explained my situation and they gave me a bursary for half the amount, and again let me pay the other half off monthly. I wouldn’t class myself as a disadvantaged writer, but when I have struggled financially they have bent over backwards to ensure I could access the courses.
Lastly, I would like to say that over the years of becoming and working as a professional poet, Tŷ Newydd has been a sustaining and enriching force in my life. I don’t think I’ve ever told them this. I can imagine the staff are feeling pretty devastated by the report. I wanted to write this blog post to let them know that they and the work they do has had a huge and immeasurable effect on my life. Everything I’ve written about changing jobs, becoming a writer, everything that has happened to me since then are measurable things. I’m now a full time PhD student and I get to read and write and think about poetry all day. The immeasurable things – my mental health, my happiness, my feeling of finally realising what I wanted to do, the friendships I’ve made – I can’t quantify those things.
I haven’t got many photos of Tŷ Newydd (too busy at the time having fun to take photos) but I did find these ones.
The group one is of the Gillian Clarke and Carol Ann Duffy masterclass. I am hiding at the back. The next one I think is a course I went on with Jo Shapcott and Daljit Nagra where I was bullied into playing the trumpet in the evening. This was 2010 – the rest are all of the CAD and Clarke course. .