Jackie Wills
Poetry in the countryside

Jackie Wills has several collecitons of poetry, including Powder Tower (Arc 1995) - Poetry Book Society Recommendation and shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize 1995; Black Slingbacks (Slow Dancer Press 1992); with an upcoming collection, Party, to be published in October 2000. Her work has been included in anthologies including: Outside Left (Ha'penny Press 1999); As Girls Could Boast (Oscars press 1994); Virago New Poets (1993); and Agenda Anthology of New Poetry (1992). She has published in wide variety of trade and business magazines, including author of a Financial Times report and writer for Octopus Publishing Co.

Jackie Wills has been appointed as Poet in the Surrey Hills, an initiative set up by the Poetry Society and the Countryside Agency.

Preliminary Report

When I read about this residency, I was really excited by it because I was brought up in Surrey and lived there for 25 years. Childhood has been a major inspiration in the past for my writing and I felt the chance to revisit that landscape would undoubtedly be inspirational. So I feel really lucky to have been selected for the post.

It's an ambitious project which aims to use poetry as a common language in preparing a management plan for the Surrey Hills, an area of outstanding natural beauty. It is funded by the Poetry Society and Countryside Commission and is an experiment to establish whether this method can be used elsewhere in the country for groups of people who are traditionally excluded from the planning process.

Planning is beset by jargon. Clearly some of this is necessary because of the legal framework it works within. But as with any jargon, this language excludes those who do not have the time or the inclination to work hard at understanding it.

One of the groups the residency is targeting is young people. There is no obvious mechanism for seeking out their views on the use of land so the residency will be using poetry to try and establish their views on how the Surrey Hills AONB should develop, or not. Through workshops in schools and with other groups of young people, including those with disabilities, I aim to encourage them to write about what matters to them: do children in rural and urban areas feel part of the countryside and how does it affect their lives? Are their views on the countryside different to those of the adults who have the greatest say in what happens?

Another group the residency is aimed at is farmers. This is largely because of the influence they have on the landscape and because in Surrey, many farms have been run by families for generations - but this tradition is under threat because of the economics of farming. This is more of an unknown quantity within the residency. Together with Rob Fairbanks, the Surrey Hills AONB officer and Imogen Haig, Surrey County Council's arts officer, I will be looking at how best to approach this group - there are undoubtely strong traditions to draw on in the work of Les Murray, Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes.

In addition, I hope to run some workshops for planning officers and councillors, as well as two steering groups which are particularly concerned with the Surrey Hills area. These will be focused on the use of language, how poetry can encourage creative thinking and how the process of undertaking writing exercises can in itself help a group of people to work together. I will be setting up a poetry trail as part of the Mole Valley literature festival and I'm sure there will be other activities which emerge during the six months the residency covers.

One of the first things I learned was that while it is important to have a structure to the residency, it is equally vital to be open to opportunities. The real bonus of a residency, though, is having the time to write. I hardly dared to hope for this opportunity because I've spent so long just trying to make ends meet as a freelance journalist, with much of the rest of my time taken up with two small children.

I'm hoping the residency will give me the chance to experiment a little more with different approaches to writing. I'm too superstitious to go into any detail but even in these early days (I started just before Easter) it has prompted a lot of thought about the landscape and people I knew as a child and as a journalist on the local paper. Living outside Surrey for around 10 years now, I have a different perspective, although I've been back fairly regularly in that time. However, now my most familiar views are of the sea, the Downs and the graveyard which my garden backs onto. I'd like Surrey to surprise me again and maybe I can provide a few surprises too!

- Jackie Wills

Young Poets Network