A Poet in Residence spills the beans …

We continue our poetry theme this week with a blog article from Caroline Johnstone about her experience of being a poet in residence. Just in case it’s escaped your attention, the Autumn Voices blogs are poetry-themed this month because of our annual poetry competition, so don’t forget to enter that!

About Caroline

Caroline is an experienced senior legal advisor, workshop facilitator, coach, writer and poet. Throughout her career, she has continued to develop a rich range of skills and experiences which are now the foundations of her creative practice and advisory work.

Caroline’s career has been mainly in HR/employment law and management as she loves working with people to empower them or to support personal change and development. She has a BA in Human Resource Management with Distinction, is trained in Thomas PPA, and is a Chartered Member of the CIPD, an NLP Master Practitioner, and a certified Master Ericksonian Hypnotherapist. 

As a poet and writer, she runs a poetry for wellbeing group called Write Lines. Caroline is currently the poet in residence for Dundonald Castle and Visitor Centre in East Ayrshire.

You can find Caroline at her website as well as on social media.

A fortified ruin of a medieval castle in the small village of Dundonald in Southwest Scotland might seem like a strange place to offer a poet in resident position to anyone, but I’m delighted to say I’ve got that role for the next year. 

The Friends of Dundonald Castle SCIO (SC031541) own and run the visitor centre as a community hub, and they work hard at building community. Children’s author Lorraine Johnston (no relative) had approached them to see if they’d be interested in having a writer in residence and they decided to try that out. When she needed to step back to concentrate on her own writing, I was delighted to have the opportunity to meet with them to see what we might be able to do with a poet in residence instead.

I’m an author and poet, and as part of my work in wellbeing, I had been running ‘poetry for wellbeing’ classes in Kilmarnock, and more recently Irvine, for a number of years. While that remains close to my heart, I was intrigued at the chance to combine two of my loves – writing and history – and see what might happen. 

The history on Dundonald Castle hill is thought to date back at least 3,500 years and there is evidence for an Iron Age hillfort and several phases of castles spanning the 12th–14th centuries, including a castle belonging to the High Stewards of Scotland.  The last of the three castles on the site was built to mark King Robert II’s succession to the throne of Scotland, so there is much to consider and write about (and anyone can explore that history plus the medieval tower house, the barrel-vaulted ceiling and previous excavations at the small but lovely coffee shop and visitor centre).

We hope to organise a couple of larger events, including a Christmas Cracker (music and spoken word), and an early summer event which may be a mini poetry festival. The Castle has a small but very hard-working team, so we don’t wish to create too much additional work for them as they already run several other great events.

As part of the residency, Lauren, who runs the castle, wanted me to continue the writing group and we were interested to see if any of the previous writers would be keen to explore poetry, and I’m delighted to say some of them have been. The group meets bi-weekly, and is free to attend, which was important to me to encourage inclusivity and remove social barriers. There is a combination of some very new poets there and some seasoned poets, so any teaching must have a balance that encompasses both, but that’s a good challenge for me to have. I often find I’m taught more than I teach and besides, there are much better teachers on form, grammar and punctuation than me!

In this group, the focus isn’t about form. I want people to fall in love with poetry, to find ways of saying what is important to them in a brief and meaningful way, to understand that modern poetry doesn’t require iambic pentameters and clear rhyming schemes – even when some of their favourite poems from childhood would have those elements in them. I want them to find the joy of half-rhymes, concrete poems, the importance of line breaks and punctuation to add to the reader’s experience, as well as the discipline of a haiku or sonnet, so each week I provide examples of poems or other resources for the writers to explore for themselves.

Of course, some of the regular sessions have specific links to the castle, as it would be lovely to create a body of work in poetry to share with visitors, and I will be contributing some poems to that in my role, as when you are a poet in residence, you have a responsibility to the place you’re working in, to help capture the place, the history and the experience. Although there isn’t a great deal of written evidence we can rely on for this site, that won’t prevent us from using our imagination or information gained from other sources, so we hope that over the year, our poets and visitors might start to see this history from a different perspective, and how history links to our present too.  

I’m also hoping that we will be able to draw inspiration from artefacts that have been found at the castle during their community archaeology investigations. 

I’m delighted the castle had already engaged in the Year of Stories. In the 2021 Year of Coasts and Waters, I was ready to start a residency with the Scottish Maritime Museum when my husband was diagnosed with cancer, and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to commit to all we had planned, and because things were so uncertain, it was best not to proceed at all. This residency gives me the flexibility I need at this point in my life and the Year of Stories – with its theme of discovering what gives us our unique sense of place and belonging – has been the main theme in my own poems. Other themes are also reflected here too, like politics, history and philosophy, as while I am a major advocate of journaling as a therapeutic tool, I find that writing poems about events past and present across the world is a way of helping me process helplessness or anger at the futility of war or the greed of politicians. 

While I can be inspired by something I read or a particular phrase used on the radio or TV, I find that the discipline of a weekly prompt helps me write so I’m grateful for my own experiences of writing groups with the likes of Donny O’Rourke or Julia Webb. In 2020, I went through a long period of writing nothing, and like many, finding it difficult to engage in reading poetry, but sitting in a caravan with a Billy Collins anthology reading ‘The Country’ and laughing with joy at his skill was what re-engaged me, and I’ve learned now not to fear periods when you write nothing at all. 

After another long period of not writing anything in 2022, I had a two-week period where I wrote about 70 poems, about half of which have now been published, so who knows what will come out of this residency for everyone involved.

Caroline Johnstone

Annual Poetry Competition

Theme: ‘The Environment’
Deadline: 31st October 2022 – Entries now closed

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