Jackie Wills
Poetry in the countryside
Final Report

Surrey Hills Poetry Residency - April to October 1999

I have enjoyed the Surrey Hills residency enormously. From a personal point of view, it has been inspiring and challenging. It has drawn on my experience working with schools and consolidated it. It has also given me the opportunity to work, albeit on a relatively small scale, with adults and explore the potential for using creative writing in professional development. As can be seen from the record (below) of how I have spent my time, a large part has been devoted to working with schools.

Work with young people was one of the key aims and I hope I have fulfilled expectations here. One of the most important results, I believe, has been the realisation that creative writing can be taken out of the classroom and used as a tool on school field trips.One of the reasons why initially, I decided to concentrate on writing based on field trips was the original brief to encourage writing which may fit in with the Surrey Hills management plan themes. I did stray from this brief because I found, from the first visit, that expecting children to write about "countryside matters" was on the whole, not allowing them to explore their own experience. Some of them, I think,wrote what they thought was expected.

However, with a slightly different approach, the visits subsequently encouraged some interesting writing based on the childrens' experiences out of the classroom. The emphasis had changed, so that they were using the environment as a source of imagery rather than subject matter in itself. This tied in with another of the Surrey Hills themes, which was to promote the area as a "landscape of inspiration".

Two farm visits also fitted with the management strategy to promote greater understanding of farmers' role in managing the countryside.As a result of the work with young people, Rob Fairbanks, the AONB officer, is planning to produce an informative colour poster for schools about the farmed landscape, using extracts from poems produced during the residency to illustrate how creative writing can enhance otheraspects of the curriculum. In addition, schools with be circulated with details of where to go on field trips, and information on how creative writing can be included. Work produced may be incorporated into a book which explores more fully the different visits undertaken and writing exercises which produced the poems.

I found that schools involved were generally appreciative of the opportunity to use my time. A couple of secondary schools pointed out that they would not have known how to, or had the time to, research where to get hold of a poet. I should explain, too, that my contact with young people was directed through schools because it was the easiest way to contact a wide group of children. Working through youth groups in Surrey, would have taken much more time to set up, since there does not seem to be any central contact point. Furthermore, schools had been invited to take part before I began the residency.

Work with adults covered different aims. I ran two workshops with planners, one at Box Hill, the other at Winkworth Arboretum. Feedback from these was that those involved appreciated having time away from work to stand back and look at it differently. The writing exercises I used did acknowledge their professional experience, but were essentially aimed at producing expression of personal experience. I found the planners very receptive to the idea of creative writing and I think it opened up another avenue of expression for some of them. The workshops were short, just two hours each, so there was not that much time to build on what they produced. However, I think the exercise of scrutinising how language is used was beneficial. I hope that examples of other poets' work which I showed them will also encourage some to explore more contemporary writing.

I ran two other workshops, one for National Trust wardens and another for farmers. Both of these were aimed at illustrating how creative writing could be used for school visits, although both groups bravely set aside their reticence and tackled writing exercises! In both cases, we also looked at poems written by other contemporary poets. I was conscious, when running workshops for adults, that many of them will have had contact or have been involved in other art projects. There is a considerable move towards introducing visual art, in particular, into the landscape and it has proved controversial in a number of ways.With the residency, although there were limits on how widely I could spread myself, I wanted to try and break through the preconception that these kinds of projects are elitist and more for the benefit of the artist than anyone else. I know there are many writers who feel there is enough "bad" writing around without encouraging more, but I wanted the residency to be as inclusive as possible.

Who knows if any of the participants will write more themselves. But I hope that the workshops will encourage them to consider using poets in the future. Allied to the warden's workshop, in fact, was a poetry workshop I ran for a National Trust open day during October half term. Some of the workshop participants were running their own activities on that day and I hope this idea was strengthened as a result.

I think that there is room for more residencies, or commissioned poems, in rural areas and those commissioning public art could be made more aware of the benefits of poetry. Unlike sculpture, for example, literature is not visually intrusive. If it is combined with writing workshops, it is inclusive of communities in a way that a sculptor or photographer working alone cannot be. Furthermore, the end result can be used a number of different times - as has been done with poems commissioned for an earlier Surrey Hills management document, before the residency.

One of the other important lessons I learned from the residency was that I had anticipated being able to do more during it. Initially, I had ideas about poetry trails, promoting poetry among a wide variety of different community groups using the countryside. However, I quickly realised that logistically, this would be extremely difficult. I attended a number of meetings to explain the reasoning behind the residency, but at times felt that possibly I was talking about it too much rather than doing.....This is not meant to be a criticism. I think the residency has run very smoothly. Perhaps it is more to do with my expectations from the start that I could achieve more, or as I said earlier, spread myself more widely.

My own work was given a great boost by the time allowed to write as part of the residency. As I explained in my application, I was excited by the possibility of revisiting the place I was brought up and this has come out in the long poem I have written during the residency, as well as others and no doubt, more in the future. The residency also generated two commissions from Kent County Council and the University of Surrey.