Saturday 8th October
Durham Town Hall, Burlison Gallery
Review by Jenny Whitfield
As soon as I entered the glorious Burlison Gallery in Durham Town Hall, I knew that we were in for something truly special. Named a BBC Radio 3 Verb New Voice for her project, Carmen Marcus uses her poetry to explain how, as a recently lapsed Catholic, she is looking for an alternative to prayer.
I felt genuinely honoured to have been in the room with Carmen as she performed – because that’s what it felt like, an intimate performance. It wasn’t as though we were an audience watching from afar, it was like we were with her as she made her journey across the floor, taking through her breakup with Jesus, remembering her mother’s bedroom and other such breathtaking moments.
To be able to see the evolution of a book as a work in progress was something magical. I was even lucky enough to interview Carmen at the end of her performance.
What is it that inspires you?
Inspiration is such a weird word. We say inspiration is like taking a breath, but it should be more like taking a sniff. Because sometimes I can be sitting on a train and I’ll hear something that somebody has said and I’ll think “oh god that was beautiful, I need to turn that into something”.
And because I grew up by the sea as a child, the sea is massively inspirational, so that’s why I incorporated it into this project. But I think it’s more about being alert and aware of those magical moments where you sniff out a beautiful thing and think “that’s got a spark”, it’s being aware of that. Honing in on your senses as a poet, and you can use anything and everything.
What is your writing process like?
I am really strict. It has to be really, really strict. I’ll wake up about 6.30am and do free writing, even if I don’t have anything in particular to write about, so I can really catch those ideas uncensored on the really early morning. I’m also currently working on my manuscript, fit that around working part time, so I’ll do two hours of that. I don’t always have the luxury of being in control of that time, but I keep a spreadsheet so I know how many hours I’ve spent a day, even if some of those hours are spent staring at a computer screen going, “oh my god, Jesus!”
It is also really important to read, I read all of the time, something fiction, non-fiction and something poetic to get that inspiration in. The other thing I need to make more time for but never do is to so what they call creative dates, to get out of the house and go look at things. I also have a daily practice which I call seven by seven, where I write down seven things I did, seven things I saw and one thing I overheard and that is where I go to mine information and images from.
Wow, that sounds like a lot. How have you managed to figure all that out?
It’s taken me years. It was only because I’d worked in fundraising, which involves a lot of research, drafting and redrafting so I just took those principles directly from work. The research bit is really important when you’re writing, it can be as diverse as seeing other performances, going on long train journeys and listening to other people or even going to the beach.
What is your one tip for an aspiring freelance writer/poet?
Read. Read, read, read. There is no other substitute for it. Read books. Smell books. Underline in them, deface them, put your notes in the margins. When The Book of Godless Verse becomes a book, I’m going to have extra big margins so that people can write and draw and do what they want with it. So just read, and get out and find the stuff that inspires you. It gives you the confidence to just work and work and reminds you that you love writing.
Lastly, what is your proudest achievement?
To be honest, I am really proud of this performance. I found out I was pregnant half way through the project, I didn’t know if pregnancy brain was going to interfere with my ability to write, and I got to work with some really brilliant people and pushed myself to take risks, which is wonderful when they pay off. But I had never done a performance like this before, never worked with a musician previously and brought other people’s stories into it. So I think this is what I am most proud of, being able to get through this and balance everything.
One of the other things I am really proud of is when I do a workshop and someone comes forward months later and says they are still using a technique I taught them, because it just makes you feel useful. It’s a lovely warm feeling.
Carmen was truly a pleasure to talk to, and the entire experience of watching her perform and learning from her afterwards was the highlight of Durham Book Festival for me. I can’t wait to get a copy of The Book of Godless Verse once it is released, and I am going to doodle all over it.