I think the first time you bite the bullet and say, “I’m a poet”, is momentous. It took me twenty years of intensive and serious writing to “come out”. I was at a writing conference and we’d been asked what we wanted on our badges. Since I’ve become a freelancer my work life is so complex the badge would have more or less covered my whole body with all my many and varied job titles, so I just said, “Poet”, and there I was, wandering round a large, corporate hotel with “Sue Burge, Poet” emblazoned on my jumper. A fellow attendee came up to me and said, “Oh that’s fantastic, I wish I was brave enough to call myself a poet.” Interesting, isn’t it? So, how did I get brave enough?!
It all started when I was a kid. An only child for nine years before my brother was born, I spent most of my time reading and sometimes turned my hand to writing short stories and a series of rather obnoxious know-it-all pamphlets about smoking and pollution which usually started with the rather pompous phrase “I may only be 9 years old but…” My juvenilia doesn’t stand up to examination but a couple of the poems did get published in The Surrey Comet, our local rag. One memorable one was about James Bond (which I was too young to see) and had the immortal lines “James Bond was the man in front, Dirty Dick was the man behind/One was bad, the other was kind”…
As a teenager, I read Rupert Brooke and Spike Milligan, a heady combination. I drew pen portraits of myself hunched against a wall with my head cradled in my arms. Yes, angsty poetry wasn’t far behind.
When I started teaching at the University of East Anglia I stopped writing, unless you count lesson plans, for a while. Then my boss asked me to teach some creative writing classes and I decided that in order to be taken more seriously, I needed to attend some writing classes myself. And I’ve never stopped. I think it’s what makes me a better teacher. I’m always doing workshops and online courses or popping down to the fabulous Poetry School in London to join seminars. Currently, I’m a freelance creative writing and film studies tutor and run classes all over the region on poetry, short stories, and memoir writing. I mentor people through their writing projects and always persuade people to give poetry a go, as I firmly believe it will make them better all-around writers. I encourage people to send their poetry to magazines and competitions and feel as proud as Punch when they are successful. I help them deal with rejection, talk about my fat file of rejections and how it is the mark of a proper writer. I was fooled very early on by having practically the first poem I sent out accepted by a really good magazine so I know how it feels to be knocked back a bit after an early success.
I read a great deal of contemporary poetry too. I see it as market research and also like to keep my students informed of what’s new and successful in the poetry world. At the moment I’m excited by Mark Doty, Terrance Hayes, Elisabeth Sennitt Clough, Raymond Antrobus, Richard Scott, Heidi Williamson, Helen Ivory, Julia Webb, Jake Polley, and countless others – it’s a great time to be a poet and be interested in poetry.
So, was it all this that made me decide I had the right to call myself a poet? Not really. In 2016 the Arts Council, England, awarded me a substantial grant to realize a poetry project. I wanted to combine my three great passions, film, poetry and Paris. The grant enabled me to spend a total of six weeks in Paris where I wrote as a woman possessed. I’d already completed my first poem on the Eurostar before I even arrived at the Gare du Nord and averaged three “more than okay and possibly publishable” poems a week the whole time I was there. I was writing poetry which celebrated Paris’ cinematic heritage and so visited various locations and went on guided walks led by the wonderful Juliette Dubois of Ciné balade. I also met other poets and went to readings and open mic events. It was here that I started calling myself a poet. I was away from my home territory, no-one really knew me or was out to judge me, so there I was, a new persona emerging from the chrysalis.
And then it all took off from there. I wrote more and more and got better and better. Then in Autumn 2018 Hedgehog Poetry Press, run by the inimitable and innovative Mark Davidson, published the pamphlet which resulted from my Paris project, Lumière, and, in the same period, Live Canon Poetry Press published my debut collection, In the Kingdom of Shadows. My new pamphlet, The Saltwater Diaries, will be out with Hedgehog this year and I’m working on my second collection, Confetti Dancers, which explores my time in the 1980s working for The Royal Academy of Dancing and seeing it decimated by the arrival of the AIDS virus.
I can’t imagine not being part of the poetry world. It’s a generous and loving community and I feel privileged to be a part of it. Friendship is often instantaneous, I have clicked with so many wonderful people and they have enriched my world. Since I started going to open mic events I have been told that my poetry has changed, that I am more aware of sound and I would encourage everyone to find a local open mic event and go for it. It gets your poetry out there, gives it an airing, makes you visible. I’ve been a featured/guest poet at some great events and have had some really interesting commissions including, in 2017, being part of a group of ten amazing poets who created a 50-minute performance to complement a screening of the 1916 documentary film The Battle of the Somme at The Cinema Museum in London. None of the great commissions I have taken up have been paid work, but poets are used to the “starving in a garret” stereotype and don’t ask for much/anything. I’ll shortly receive the name of the tree I have been asked to celebrate in a poem and will get on my bike and spend the day with my subject, scribbling away, happy as Larry.
Yes, I’m a poet and proud of it, and I don’t think I’ll ever want to be anything else. It’s what I would have said in answer to that old chestnut, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Wow! How many people actually get to have their dreams come true?
Sue Burge is a freelance film studies and creative writing lecturer based in North Norfolk, UK. She has taught both nationally and internationally and runs a popular international writing course by e-mail subscription, The Writing Cloud. Her poems have appeared in a wide range of publications such as Mslexia, Orbis, Brittle Star, The LampeterReview, Magma, The French Literary Review, The North,Stride, High Window, London Grip, Lighthouse and Ink, Sweat and Tears. Her debut pamphlet, Lumière, was published by Hedgehog Press in 2018 and her first collection, In the Kingdom of Shadows, was published by Live Canon, also in 2018. Sue has undertaken a variety of poetry commissions and has performed and read her work extensively. More information at www.sueburge.uk